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Theatre to look forward to in 2023

Fine, I have compiled a list of shows that I am looking forward to this year.

GUYS AND DOLLS 

The legendary musical gets the full Bridge’s immersive staging, promising us the New York lights and Havana heat. Daniel Mays leads the pack as Nathan Detroit, alongside Marisha Wallace as Miss Adelaide. Nick Hytner directs, and Arlene Phillips choreographs this open-ended run.

MISS SAIGON 

Sheffield Theatre’s production of Boublil-Schönberg arrives at the Crucible this summer and promises to shift the story and characters and engender “big important conversations” about the shows problematic Asian stereotypes. Anyway, if you like the idea of shows somewhere between gender bending Company (2018) and burn-it-down Emilia, this is probably up your street.

CRAZY FOR YOU

This sparkling and infectious revival of the Gershwin’s musical arrives in the west end starring triple threat Charlie Stemp. Expect glorious dancing, note-perfect melodies, and some brilliant physical comedy. Pure class. 

SYLVIA 

Beverley Knight stars as Emmeline Parnkhurst in a kinetic new hip hop musical that fuses soul and funk at the story of Sylvia, “the lesser-known Pankhurst at the heart of the Suffragette movement. 

Originally a ‘work in progress’ dance show ‘Sylvia’ is back at the Old Vic as a full-blown dance musical. 

A LITTLE LIFE 

Ivo Van Hove directs this divisive production of Hanya Yanagihara’s mesmerising novel, it gets an English language adaptation.  The cast includes James Norton and Omari Douglas, as the acceptable face of self-harm and psychological pain. 

This is a long evening of theatre – though it has been trimmed down from the relentless four-hour Dutch version I saw in Edinburgh last summer – that follows the lives of four university friends. Think The Inheritance with masochism. 

OPERATION MINCEMEAT 

Following previous runs at the New Diorama Theatre in 2019 and Southwark Playhouse in 2020, 2021 and 2022, as well as an extended run at Riverside Studios last summer, Operation Mincemeat is set to win a much bigger following at the Fortune Theatre, replacing ‘The Woman in Black’ after 33-years.

STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE 

Following a sell-out return Sheffield run this show transfers to the National Theatre next month and must be seen.  

Got it? Good.

Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s brilliant Park Hill 2018 musical celebrates the communities that move through six decades of dilapidation, social change, and gentrification. 

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES

The latest hit from smart Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-prize winner for Sweat, whom writes the book for this musical featuring a group of rebel women in small-town 60s South Carolina. With music by Spring Awakening’s Duncan Sheik, this Almeida show is bound to be good. 

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF 

Tennessee Williams febrile masterpiece of family dysfunction and tremendous sorrow in the Deep South gets a revitalised staging by Roy Alexander Weise at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. 

SHIRLEY VALENTINE 

Sheridan Smith will take on the role of ‘theatre’s best-loved mum’ in Willy Russell’s play in London in February.The play, which was also made into a 1989 movie with Pauline Collins, tells the story of a working-class housewife from Liverpool which focuses on her dissatisfaction with life before a transformative foreign holiday.

LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS 

Jenna Coleman and Aidan Turner star in Sam Steiner’s smart two-hander about “what happens when we can’t say anything” after the government caps daily speech at 140 words per person. This 75 minute fringe hit is a little out of place in the west end but at this point let us be glad it is happening at all. 

IN DREAMS 

This is a new jukebox musical from the creators of & Juliet and it premieres at Leeds Playhouse in 2023. 

In Dreams uses the music of the late Roy Orbison to tell an original story about a female singer. The show is being described as a ‘lyrical and comedic exploration about legacy and how we would like to be remembered.’ 

Casting has yet to be revealed…

See you soon and ‘all the best’ for 2023!

Carl x

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A Streetcar Named Desire is everything you want Theatre to be

Mescal, Credit…Marc Brenner


First things first, Paul Mescal is tremendous. He makes bully Stanley Kowalski terrifying yet sensitive, while Anjana Vasan as his wife Stella is magnificent – – blind to his brutality.

Kowalski is the epitome of toxic masculinity, a character devoid of empathy and kindness.

Alas, blue-collar Stanley sees that the unexpected sister-in-law Blanche DuBois is not what she appears to be, and sets out to destroy her. Patsy Ferran excels as the disintegrating dame in director Rebecca Frecknall’s grand production of the 1947 Tennessee Williams play. 

Ferran who stepped in to play Blanche last month when Lydia Wilson withdrew due to an injury, is completely mesmerising.

Madeleine Girling’s empty raised platform, under Lee Curran’s lighting, makes the in-the-round battle for territory fully absorbing. Frecknall honours Williams in not making it easy to take sides.

This seriously unsettling production with few props barrels along: the furious jazz drum score (designed by Peter Rice) sometimes becomes intrusive and occasionally makes the dialogue hard to hear.  

But on the whole the nerve jangling a capella singing, percussion and symphonic swells work to the play’s advantage: they punctuate Stanley’s rancour and Blanches downward spiral. 

As Blanche loses first her dignity and then her mind, an audience’s emotions is left in shreds. I wept as Blanche walked from the auditorium. 

This multi-faceted show lasts around three hours, but there isn’t a moment when the drink-fuelled tension drops or focus of the ensemble lapses.

Pasty Ferran as Blanche

The Almeida’s A Streetcar Named Desire – the play’s fifth major UK revival in the last 20 years – is everything you want theatre to be: vital, challenging, intellectually alive, visually stunning, emotionally affecting.

Yet my memories of this spiky production will be of lean, sexy and pitch perfect Mescal who roars like a goaded boar – “I’m king around here.” He mimicks a tiger, in the infamous show-down scene

It’s a savage tour de force not only from Mescal and Ferran but everyone involved, and awards will follow: a west end transfer has been announced

So if you haven’t got a ticket, try relying on the kindness of strangers.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Almeida, London, until 4 February.

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BECTU Union’s Philippa Childs: “It does feel as if our whole infrastructure is creaking.”

The strike – and the threat of striking – should be celebrated precisely because it underpins many rights and freedoms we now take for granted. 

It is the second morning of the Royal College of Nursing strikes and after a challenging few years, Philippa Childs, Head of union BECTU is usually an optimistic person.

But after a year of total pandemonium, it’s hard to see the light. “I must admit I feel quite pessimistic at the state of the country generally. It does feel as if our whole infrastructure is creaking,” Childs says, as we talk on Zoom. 

Head of BECTU Union, Philippa Childs
Head of BECTU Union, Philippa Childs

BECTU is the UK’s media and entertainment trade union; sectors covered include broadcasting, film, independent production, theatre and the arts, live events, leisure and digital media. Unions stand up for the workforce in good times and in times of trouble.

Why does she think the government view culture as a burden and not an investment? “We have written to the government on a number of occasions to ask them to meet to address the concerns of our members.”

“Of the Secretary of States who have been in place since I’ve been in this role, I don’t think any of them have taken up our offer to meet,” she says, with a shrug.

Still, there have been 11 UK culture secretaries over the past 12 years and arts-funding has been repeatedly cut amidst the recovery from the pandemic. 

“I get the impression talking to the new SOLT and UK Theatre CEO’s, Claire Walker and Hannah Essex, I think they are a breath of fresh air, by the way –  are happier to talk to us about the broader challenges in the industry and are committed to proper engagement with us,” Childs says, not mincing her words. 

“When I took up this role we had 30,000 members across the creative industries, we now have 37,000. Our industry does rely on freelancers such a lot and the growth has largely been in that area,” she says. “People have a better understanding that they need a collective voice.” 

Childs is, understandably, proud.

“Our members working in live events and film and TV work incredibly hard,” she stresses. 

What then are the biggest misconceptions of joining a Union? “Probably the whole thing about strike action. I think people don’t necessarily understand the law and how difficult it is to take strike action.” 

“I suppose my approach has always been to be very close to what members are experiencing and what they actually want to achieve, as opposed to pursuing more political agendas,” says Childs. 

Still, the financial realities of repeatedly taking home lower pay packets can begin to weigh on individuals.

Equity members protested outside the Arts Council England offices
Equity members protested outside the Arts Council England offices

Performers’ union Equity recently organised rallies and delivered letters of protest at Arts Council England offices as a result of ACE cutting £50m a year from arts organisations in London in its 2023-26 settlement, to fulfil a government instruction to divert money away from the capital as part of the levelling up programme.

“It’s a difficult time for everyone, I think,” she says. “We have to keep our campaigns going, and we need to make the case for why investment in the creative industries makes economic as well as cultural good sense.”

A recent survey from BECTU outlines low pay, long hours and poor work-life balance as key issues driving the continued skills shortage plaguing the UK’s theatre sector.

The survey found that almost all respondents (94%) felt the industry relied on a “show must go on” attitude at the expense of workers’ welfare, while 89% of workers believed employers had unfairly appealed to their goodwill to pressure them into doing work beyond their remit.

Childs – the first female head of BECTU – talks of creative arts workers that are “at breaking point” and stresses that “the industry cannot expect them to remain ‘for the love of the job’ when there is better working conditions and flexible working lives to be found elsewhere.

ENO soloists appear wearing ‘Choose Opera’ t-shirts. Picture: Twitter @KathyLette
ENO soloists appear wearing ‘Choose Opera’ t-shirts. Picture: Twitter @KathyLette

She says that “there needs to be some real progress around addressing the chronic issues facing the sector.” And she craves “some sign of recognition” from central government that the arts are of value and important.

Joining a Union isn’t a sin; it’s a key to a society less beset by injustice than our own.


Childs adds: “We don’t think that poor work/life balance and low pay are intractable. Our members who work in theatre are very concerned about long working hours, bullying and harassment, too.” 

For more information or to join BECTU visit https://bectu.org.uk

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Top 5 Shows of 2022 (according to me)

Well, 2022 – don’t start. 

This time last year, I somewhat naively said that the industry was emerging from its pandemic trials. The UK is the only G7 country not to have regained the ground lost during the lockdown.

Crucially, though, Regional Theatres produced excellent, thoughtful and daring work during the most difficult and excruciating period in British Theatre history. Some institutions and freelancers may not make it to the end of 2023.

Royal Exchange delivered the quirky Betty! A Sort of Musical. Opera North remounted the exquisite A Little Night Music. The Covid delayed and ‘controversial’ Into The Woods landed at Theatre Royal Bath, and Nottingham Playhouse took on the Parent Trap with musical Identical

Let’s face it, 2022 was a year that delivered exactly what none of us wanted it to. 

Including but not limited to:

To quote writer Sean O’Casey: ‘The whole worl’s in a state o’ chassis.’

At least the 2021 London Cabaret Cast Recording is on its way. In the meantime, though, here are my top 5 shows of the year. 

  1. Age is a Feeling 
Age is a Feeling

I loved everything about this. Haley McGee performed an interactive and somber solo show – first at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then two sold out runs at Soho Theatre, where I saw it. 

Essentially, perched atop a ladder – like a lifeguard – McGee explored getting older. 

Age is a Feeling chronicled turning 25 — when, we are told, the brain becomes fully formed — and explores the fate that lies ahead. McGee‘s wicked meditation on mortality is part autobiographical theatre and part TED Talk.

The 12 intersected tales from the same life, with six performed at each show. Pure beautiful, wry storytelling. 

Age is a feeling, you’ll feel it.

2. My Neighbour Totoro 

My Neighbour Totoro

The Royal Shakespeare Company stage version of the globally adored Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro didn’t disappoint.

Phelim McDermott’s production combined sensitive performances and exquisite design, with Basil Twist’s enchanting puppet direction bringing us a mountainous, shaggy Totoro and a mad inflatable ginger Cat-Bus, not to mention butterflies, fluffy chickens and darting soot sprites.

My Neighbour Totoro was brilliant, bold, and bonkers. An unforgettable hit.

3. Crazy For You 

Crazy For You
Crazy For You

CHARMING. That’s what this show was. Very charming indeed.

Charlie Stemp delivered a thundering performance for the ages. Musical theatre doesn’t get any better than Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Crazy For You.

This classy, sophisticated show is transferring to the West End next Summer – with 20 minutes sliced off it. 

As for Stemp, he displayed the physical comedy of Norman Wisdom and the dancefloor artistry of Fred Astaire, confirming his place as a true superstar. 

4. Prima Facie 

Prima Facie

Suzie Miller’s smart play about sexual assault and the legal system, provided an electrifying performance from Jodie Comer that never let up for a moment. 

The NT live broke all box office records as the highest-grossing event cinema release since cinemas closed at the start of the Covid pandemic in March 2020. 

Comer gave an acting masterclass in this 100-minute solo show, playing a barrister who defends men accused of sexual assault – until she is date-raped by a colleague herself. 

Prima Facie transfers to Broadway in 2023.

5. The Collaboration  

“It’s not what you are that counts,” Andy Warhol, eternal fan of misdirection, once said. “It’s what they think you are.”

The Collaboration

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope played Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat brilliantly. 

Anthony McCarten’s lively Young Vic bio-drama told the early-80s New York story of Warhol and Basquiat’s work on those 16 canvases, and the friendship that took root between them.

Listen, The Collaboration was a hoot. And Kwame Kwei-Armah’s vibrant production is now on Broadway

FAREWELL.

Carl x 

N.B. I think I should have included Oklahoma! Oh well. 

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Cabaret Cast Recording – as it happened

Today we consider the plight of the Olivier Award winning West End production of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club.

By way of a reminder, the 2021 London Cabaret Cast Recording was put on public sale online last weekend with a 16 December 2022 release date. Great, I thought. Except it suddenly vanished from online retailers. I shared the news, so did many others; I love the show.

As for how well the production team’s taking it, one member of the Kit Kat Club (ATG) staff took issue by trying to discredit me in a series of *now deleted* disingenuous Tweets stating it was time “to stop paying attention to theatre news leaked by bloggers in self serving pursuit of RTs/follows.” 

A minor act of condescension which wouldn’t have bothered even a prickly little customer like me maybe five years ago. I mean … I’ve been staring at that quote for some time, trying to work out what precisely it is about it that has sent me to the brink of a hernia. It was later being compared to journalist Laura Kuenssberg, I think. Ha!

the mysterious 2021 London Cabaret Cast Recording CD

Still, each one of these botched attempts at dumbed down gravitas now turns me full Braveheart – see embargo-gate – and I very much hope you are with me.

Cut to this week where it landed on hundreds of HMV shelves. Maybe there was a legal issue but it was hastily pulled from sale.

What have these people been doing all week other than getting it amusingly wrong and reminding us that, for all their tactical social positioning in the course of flogging more tickets, the horse had bolted from the stable.

Next, Universal Music issued a DMCA notice on my Tweet for ‘Infringing Artwork Copyright.’ 

The notice stated: “In sending this notice we are seeking to ensure that infringing content is removed from the internet as quickly as possible through your cooperation.”

Takedown notice

Sorry, but no. Nothing says Merry Christmas like a cease and desist, and the farcical merry-go-round keeps spinning. Either way, I couldn’t help snorting at the irony that the show is about the rise of the Third Reich.

Alas, I am not an obedient blogger.

Despite the work that has gone into crafting the fantastic social media profile of the show, this gatekeeping has left a nasty taste in my mouth. In any rational world you’d be able to state the obvious reality that a CD is in the shops. 

Yet on it all rolls, in the hope that people won’t notice. Indeed, the task of noticing such menacing things has become almost a full-time job. In fact, as the country’s economic prospects get darker and grimmer, this particular costly mistake has been head-scratching.

As one prolific Tweeter based in the USA stated: ‘This is the Fyre Festival of cast album releases.’

The whole batshit saga was easily funnier than anything ATG has done since operating a “dynamic pricing” ticketing model that saw the cost of a seat to play Cock rise briefly to £400.

Anyway, it’s all just a matter of course now, until the 2021 London Cast of Cabaret, recorded live – is properly released on January 20 2023. 

Auf wiedersehen! 
A bientot!
Good night?
Cabaret runs until December 2023

*UPDATE* On the eighth day of Christmas ATG gave to you… a pre order link for the album.

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Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol: A Festive Fiasco (bring wine)

In one of the more camp events to hit the London theatre scene this Christmas – which is saying something when Ian McKellen is in panto – Dolly Parton arrives at the Southbank with her Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.

It’s a story we all know but this time set in Tennessee, Dolly’s much-loved mountain home, with as much ‘rootin’ and ‘tootin’ as you can shake your jingle bells at. The set and staging is beautiful, and the songs (though there aren’t many, it’s just the same handful repeated for the most part) are toe-tappingly pleasing and delivered with great gusto by a cast eager to please.

Beyond the pleasantries though, this show is not good. It is, in fact, actively bad. It is the Hallmark Movie of festive theatre productions. Despite everyone’s commitment to having a good time, this has more rough edges than Scrooge has humbugs – the accents are all over the place, the choreography is pedestrian, and the whole thing could be about half an hour shorter.

It must be said there are some wonderful turns, the acting is upbeat, and Olivier award-winner George Maguire’s flamboyant turn as Jacob Marley is a stand-out portrayal. The cast presents itself with an emphatic and infectious glee, and there are plenty of chuckles along the way.

Often, though, the story it’s trying to tell doesn’t match up with what the rest of your senses are telling you. Everyone’s dying, everyone is poor, Scrooge’s past present and future are bleak, but all of this will fly over your head when delivered with whatever darn-tooting accent has been chosen for this particular line.

At one point we were told that seven people had died and the US Army had been brought in, which almost gave the audience whiplash as they tried to marry it with the non-stop hoedown the line was sandwiched between.

“It’s two o’clock, the clock has just struck two,” says Scrooge, in just one example of a piece simultaneously over and underwritten as it tries to slam together a Dickens classic and a Parton playlist. At one point we find Ebeneezer speaking to a violin in a way one would converse with a clanger (this was the ghost of Christmas Future). I don’t know either, nobody in the audience did.

None of it works. It has the air of a fever dream. But at the heart of this ‘Christmas Carol’ message is that of love and goodwill to all men. It’s a goodwill it asks of its audience, and one it gleefully receives. It’s terrible, and yet I wholeheartedly loved it in spite of its flaws, and if that’s not the true meaning of Christmas I don’t know what is.

Ollie Cole is a journalist and broadcaster based in London. His writing credits include The Stage, Secret London, The Times, KentOnline & EachOther.

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My Neighbour Totoro is profound and inventive

To the Barbican, for My Neighbour Totoro

Not since Life of Pi, have I fell in love with a show so unconditionally.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

The RSC’s completely stunning stage version of the 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film has smashed box office records – eloquent, profound, and moving, My Neighbour Totoro benefits from wonderful music by Joe Hisaishi that says more than words ever could.

Phelim McDermott, who divides his career between opera and theatre, has pitched his production somewhere between a playful musical, a divine comedy, and a metaphysical drama. The plot centres 10-year-old Satsuki and her 4-year-old sister, Mei, in 1950s Japan befriending forest spirits. Then crisis comes as the children’s mother falls gravely ill, and all of a sudden we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Reworked for the stage by Tom Morton-Smith, here we see emotions form the fundamental arc of all narrative life. This is a production that embraces sadness and doubt.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

As for the puppets, designed by Basil Twist, they are the real pull of a show that broke the Barbican box-office records for ticket sales in a single day, surpassing the set by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

The inflatable Cat-Bus, meanwhile, is a huge glowing feline that floats through the set’s trees with supernatural grace. It’s as bizarre, imaginative, and authentically psychedelic as anything produced in mainstream theatre. I loved the chickens and the Soot Sprites.

Just as the sensational screen to stage adaptation of Life of Pi, so this show uses puppets and drilled ensemble storytelling to stunning effect, all on Tom Pye’s malleable set that shifts scenes with effortlessness grace.

Of course, it’s easy to become blasé about the visual brilliance, both technical and artistic, of RSC’s output, but Totoro really is a treat for the eyes. Formidably inventive, My Neighbour Totoro hits an elusive sweet spot in terms of appealing to children and adults alike. 

The show has adapted perfectly well to the Barbican stage, but, in essence, it signifies a return to the Cirque De Soleil appetite for spectacle. There is a stunning moment that celebrates the British East and Southeast Asian cast representation at the end during the joyous curtain call.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

Make no mistake, the artistry and insight will shine on any stage; West End, New York or Hong Kong.

Overall, a captivating world you won’t want to come home from, its beauty, warmth and ambition are panoramic.

I took my Godmother who had tears of joy streaming down her face as we exited the venue.

I may be late to the party, but I now have no hesitation in declaring myself a fully paid-up Totoro fan.

Grab a return or await the inevitable transfer.

At the Barbican, London, until 21 January

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NPO Funding decisions 2023-26

Here we are, then.

After an unforgivable delay, Arts Council England (ACE) has unveiled a new three-year settlement diverting cash away from the capital.

The Handmaid’s Tale

There will be 990 funded NPO’s (National Portfolio Organisations) which ACE regards and supports as the nation’s crown jewels, up 119 from 2018-2022 investment round. There are now 260 new organisations in the portfolio compared with 183 in the previous funding round. 

Ridiculously, almost half of successful (427) organisations received standstill funding. A below inflation settlement is, of course, a huge real terms cut. That’s because the cost of living is going up for everyone – but also because the cost of making theatre is soaring too. 

But the far more frightening thing, which I wasn’t surprised about, was that 51 organisations received ACE painful cuts to their grants. Camden Arts Centre loses 35.9% of annual grant. Libraries got the smallest chunk of cash, with £4m.

NPO funding results ranked by percentage loss

The National Theatre said the 5% cut to its £16.1m a year would “present challenges” but that it was “grateful for the funding support … especially given the difficult times that many people are facing”.

What do I think?

Firstly, today is disastrous for most theatres. 

And second, these decisions will devastate our powerhouse industry and have wider implications for the freelance workforce. Most of the paltry subsidy on offer won’t touch the sides. NPO funding is not for buildings alone but allows established organisations to shape the wider ecology for others. 

The far more significant development, though, was that 141 organisations have dropped out of the portfolio. 

And Opera was a significant casualty. Royal Opera House have received a 10% cut to their grant – on top of the 10% real terms cut in 2017/2018, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne face up to a 50% reduction in funding.

Sadly, The English National Opera will no longer receive regular funding. The ENO said the announcement “marks the start of a new chapter” and “will allow us to increase our national presence by creating a new base out of London, potentially in Manchester”. Still, the company plans to use its current home, the London Coliseum, as a commercial asset by letting the theatre out for other opera and dance events.

ACE chair Sir Nick Serota said there were “opportunities that exists for English National Opera to become a different kind of company working across the country”.

He added: “They are capable of responding, in our view. They’ve got great leadership. They have great achievement, and there seems to us to be an opportunity here that we should grasp.”

Others to have lost their entire grants include long established institutions such as Theatre Alibi, Theatre Royal Winchester, The Gate, Britten Sinfonia, Cheek by Jowl, Hampstead Theatre, Watermill Theatre, Harrogate Theatre, Travelling Light, and Oldham Coliseum

The Donmar Warehouse – taking a 100% cut – will survive as a commercial enterprise. There is life outside the Arts Council, believe it or not.

A couple of London organisations including Headlong and Paines Plough have taken the opportunities that the Transfer Programme afford. The Transfer Programme was designed to move NPOs outside of London by 2024. 

Also part of this programme are English Touring Opera – their funding of £2,130,478 annually for 2023-26 – represented a 20% increase from its average annual subsidy of £1,775,399 for 2022-23. 

NT Public Acts at Cast in Doncaster

The significant change is the welcoming of a substantial number of newcomers into the portfolio.

Of the 990 organisations, 272 had not received any funding from the Arts Council through the same scheme in the previous five financial years (since 2018/19).

Those geared towards delivering ACE’s Let’s Create strategy include: LUNG Theatre, ICON Theatre, Ad Infinitum, Thick Skin, Shakespeare North Playhouse and The Paper Birds are a great addition, and it is also good to see Liverpool Everyman back in the fold after being placed in special measures. 

Crucially, The Bank of England yesterday warned of two years of pain as it hiked interest rates by the highest amount in three decades. We are entering a prolonged recession and arts organisations cannot continue to work on outdated models and expect to secure funding.

Clearly, there is a concerted focus on rural England and areas of social deprivation. Various areas in England had been targeted for increased investment including Blackburn with Darwen, North Devon and Mansfield.

The root cause of the mess is a 40% reduction in real terms of its grant-in-aid budget over the past decade. In explaining the decision-making, ACE chief executive Darren Henley emphasised the desire for the portfolio to reflect “how England looks and feels in our culture”. 

But forgive me for not buying the ACE line that redistribution of funding to areas of low engagement is proof that ‘the system’ works. Neither do I subscribe to the belief that today’s announcement will support more people in more places. It won’t.

Theatre and art are essential to the cultural, social, and economic infrastructure of any sophisticated nation. Like never before our world leading theatres – all inextricably interconnected – are in grave danger. 

If we want to be as engaged and inclusive as we say we do, then we must do more with what little we have been given. It isn’t sustainable. 

Listen, I’m too tired to be tiresome. There’s good change in there, but there’s also pain.

It’s time to count our blessings, put communities first and rethink how to salvage the few resources left for artists from the wreckage.

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Is It Time To Bin The Embargo?

The embargo. 

It was invented a century ago, primarily for practical reasons. Embargoes provide journalists with news that should not be published until a certain date and time. Standard.

But if someone gets something exclusively without having the embargoed release and by doing some journalism instead they’re within their right to put the story out – see: political & news journalism.

So where did it all go wrong? More often than not these days, in the arts especially, the only reason for the ‘embargo’ is to protect whoever is given the “exclusive”.

As a consequence, a select group of information providers (Baz Bamigboye for Deadline or WhatsOnStage) become the only means through which the theatre loving public receive information, and are thereby situated at the centre of things. It is by design. There are no such things as coincidences.

Similar publications and online personalities yearn for privileged access. And they are often prepared to pay a price to get it. Usually their dignity.

the cast of Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre, London

Naturally, currency and status involves becoming a subsidiary part of the machine. It often means turning their readers and viewers into dupes.

In other words, embargoes are more or less predicated on lack of access. How do publications make the most of the scraps they are fed? 

Such questions sit heavily on the shoulders of those who work in and around theatreland. “Oh God,” is the initial response from one London arts marketing agency managing director, who wisely asks not to be identified. “We’ve been burned in the past by miscommunication and we’re really aware how much chaos someone potentially breaking news has become. I think embargoes’ days are numbered. There have been several occasions where we’re like: This makes all of us look bad.”

Ironically, the decline of print journalism has brought with it an array of diverse coverage and reviews such as podcasts, YouTubers and bloggers. The possibility to put out news right away via Twitter, the urge to comment online can be difficult to bear, and the speeded up news cycle has put pressure on the relevance of embargoes. News is news.

Previously, I’ve experienced derision when I have broken so-called embargoes but all that information was, in any case, completely available for anyone to find, if they knew where to look. And therein lies the illogicality of the position. Since I am not *always* issued said news items with embargoes, how can I have been guilty of breaking an embargo? Would you apologise for breaking a promise you never agreed to keep?

In the case of Bonnie & Clyde, I received a general ‘On Sale Tomorrow’ email earlier in the day containing generic marketing copy; there was no embargo information on it; It had gone to 1,000 other people.

The agency has since conceded that the information was available due to a “technical error”. Alas, I’m not apologising for not abiding by an embargo that a ‘technical error’ rendered irrelevant. 

You can’t arrest a man for receiving mail. Hand on heart, if i receive a release with an embargo, i honour it. In fact, I was sent 3 this week.

And so, after Tweeting myself, a bunch of people I’d never met told me how dreadful I was. Twitter is not a kind place, even if it is full of pointless people who think they are.

As usual, the complainers have entirely missed the point

Among the nasty commentary: “Di*khead” “Scum bag” “As*hole”, “Trash” and more rage. Yes, I received a death threat. Bizarrely, meanwhile, the composer broke the embargo, too, publishing the news himself on Instagram. I’m serious. 

Credit where it is due, the PR telephoned me to discuss and I suppose you could say took a duty of care to see if I was OK. Which was nice.

Either way, we seem to be still no closer to working out a civil way to disagree about musicals on the internet. (Online forum theatreboard.com contains some of the worst anonymous trolls: avoid).

Thankfully, joining digital pile-ons, sending threatening emails are among the new criminal offences that could result in jail sentences. So, good luck out there.

As tech visionary Jaron Lanier excellently points out, “people get so caught up in just relationships with others that they lose track of reality, and so they do tend to spin out of control.”

But jeez, the sheer numbers of successful, creative and interesting theatre people who AREN’T on Twitter tell a much more powerful story. 

Anyway, Elon Musk has now closed his $44bn deal to take Twitter private. “[T]he bird is freed,” Musk tweeted. So, is it time to bin the embargo? For creative teams and PRs, that’s the million dollar question.

To quote Stephen Sondheim: ’There are rights and wrongs, and in betweens.’

I have no dramatic conclusion. Just a small suggestion. 

Raise a little hell.

Stay strong, readers. 

, , ,

God Bless Tammy Faye!

If you need a hit show, you get Rupert Goold on the phone.

Tammy Faye Bakker gets the 325-seat Almeida treatment in a new musical penned by Elton John, James Graham and Jake Shears.

Katie Brayben in Tammy Faye, at the Almeida credit: Marc Brenner

And now, at last, directed by Goold, Tammy Faye – A New Musical starring Katie Brayben and Andrew Rannells, officially opens. He and choreographer Lynn Page deliver the glitterball goods.

Quick recap: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker helped expand Christian broadcasting from a niche into an insane empire via their Praise The Lord (PTL) satellite network. A Christian couple who spectacularly fell from grace.

I went to the very first preview (two have been cancelled due to cast injury and technical delay) and thought it was a tart, wry and quirky show with legs.

First, let’s unpack what this new (largely) British musical gets right. It understands Faye as a gay icon, earning both sympathy and ridicule, and our heroine emerges with a measure of dignity intact. 

Olivier winner Katie Brayben (Beautiful) stars as Tammy Faye with Tony nominee Andrew Rannells (The Book of Mormon)

Granted, in the cold light of 2022, it’s easy to argue that the sold out run was simply the latest power move from a theatre whose ascent to theatre dominance has been signposted by a succession of smart marketing, big names and artistic brilliance.

Similarly, it would be easy to blame one’s emotional response on the ongoing disintegration of civilisation.

Religion, politics, sex and money are all equal and the story of the rise is much more substantial than that of the fall. 

That said, Tammy Faye gives you everything you could possibly want, and maybe it’s a victim of its own gargantuan accomplishment at times. (Each cast member has roughly 10 looks, with Tammy Faye’s character coming in at around a dozen — there are 15 poppy-slash-rock-slash-honky songs.)

Tammy Faye curtain call

Still, once you add Elton John‘s songs into the mix — and Tammy (Brayben) sings in most of them — there’s no time for coherence, let alone subtlety. (There is a song called ’He’s Inside Me’)

Yet most effectively, concluding Act One gospel ballad ‘Empty Hands’ things click. There are several poignant vignettes, that strike a chord with anyone who’s come face to face with the fact that an idol – whether it’s a televangelist, or even a lover – is a human being.

Rannells is entertaining and effective as closeted husband Jim.

Bunny Christie’s snazzy Celebrity Square-style designs, a reliable star of any show, do everything they can to convey the kooky world of the right wing televangelist.

Elsewhere in the musical, the ensemble are working overtime to keep things interesting. There is a lot of breaking of the fourth wall. A lot.

Furthermore, it’s a funny, smart script, loaded with jokes. Graham’s book puts the ‘fun in Christian fundamentalism’.

Andrew Rannells and Katie Brayben star as Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner in “Tammy Faye.”

Things pick up in Act Two. Here Faye is seen as a woman who made a career of living her best life. Slick 11’ O Clock number ‘Prime Time’ is exhilarating, I think.

A dazzling and award-worthy performance from Brayben playing a central character full of tensions and contradictions, is reason enough to see this show. Her performance transcends the show.

Musicals are difficult and expensive. I won’t reveal too much more, except to say that the finale (when it arrives) is euphoric, poetic, and moving. 

In the Bible love is mentioned 489 times, hate 89 times.

“Love more than hate,” Tammy Faye cautions.

Amen.


Tammy Faye is at the Almeida theatre, London, to 3 December.