, , ,

My, My, Mamma Mia! ABBA rule London: The Musical, The Party & Voyage

“Without a song or a dance, what are we?” The answer to this profound rhetorical question is, of course, nothing. 

I used to be a theatre snob.

So convinced that jukebox musicals had little to no redeeming qualities. It wasn’t that I had anything particularly against shows like Jersey Boys or Tina. It’s just that I’ve always felt that ‘proper musicals’ were a… higher art form. I have certainly mellowed, and perhaps my critical faculties have withered. 

At the risk of making my life sound more camp than it really is, last week I went to 3 ABBA related occasions in London: Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! – The Party and Voyage.

Mamma Mia was a song that became a musical, and then huge two films. And then an immersive dining show, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it in London or on tour, DVD, or indeed, Amazon Prime.

ABBA can do no wrong. 

ABBA

Before we go on, whatever people think about the band’s music, their global popularity is undeniable. If proof was needed, ABBA Gold was the UK’s 20th best-selling album in the first six months of 2021 and recently became the first LP to spend 1,000 weeks in the UK top 100 album chart.

In Mamma Mia! we have a bulletproof feel-good jukebox musical that will run and run.

Recently, Judy Craymer’s hit musical celebrated its 23rd anniversary – it’s now the West End’s sixth longest-running show – and has been seen by a staggering 10 million people. There is currently a popular UK tour on the road, too. Really, really fun. 

The London production is still breathtakingly simple – while Anthony Van Laast’s choreography builds and builds to impressive ensemble numbers. The icing on the cake here, though, is Mazz Murray. She is pitch perfect as mum Donna and leads the company of Phylida Lloyd’s production that is packed with talent and dynamism. 

Mamma Mia – photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

And what’s not to love about a show about an independent hotelier in the Greek islands, preparing for her daughter’s wedding with the help of two old friends.

It is the high spirits, the genuinely touching depth of emotion. The get-up-and-dance curtain call provides some of the happiest minutes you will experience in a London theatre, the extraordinary power of musical theatre to make everything seem well in the world, no matter what’s happening. 

On the Greenwich Peninsula, a slick ABBA infused gourmet occasion. Created by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeushere, here adapted by Sandi Toksvig – Mamma Mia – The Party! is set in a joyously contrived Niko’s Tavern on the island of Skopelos. Essentially, this immersive dining experience takes place around our tables while we enjoy Greek grub while 35 inimitable ABBA songs play out. 

Mamma Mia! – The Party

With 4 courses of fresh, vibrant flavours at every turn, carnivores will be happy: for a main course, a chunk of confit lamb shoulder and slow cooked beef, potatoes and courgettes have been roasted and partnered with peperonata and garlic.

I opt for the vegetarian menu; roasted cauliflower with a lemon-herb dressing and stuffed tomato with lentil ragout. I end up drinking the aromatic jus. And on it goes. Dessert is a delicious lemon sponge cake with citrus yoghurt and confit. Tea and coffee follow.

Vegetarian cuisine – Mamma Mia – The Party

Oh, and the ticket prices. £115 to £220 depending on how close to the action you are; drinks are extra. The evening ends with an ABBA disco– this continues until 11.30pm. It is a slick operation and no mean feat delivering 500 covers. The talented waiters make the night fully fabulous. Not bad value, overall.

Sited close to Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, I had something approaching an out of body experience at new virtual concert Voyage. The pop titans themselves– Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus – have returned as de-aged digital pop spectrums.

The flat pack steel and timber venue is a 3,000 capacity (1,650 seats, standing 1,350) spaceshiplike venue and Voyage has the potential to extend until April 2026, when the permission for the Arena expires, with the land being designated for housing. 500 moving lights, 291 speakers and “largest kinetic system in the world”. Make of that what you will. 

Abba Voyage Arena – Stufish Entertainment Architects

The Swedish band, now in their 70s, have collaborated with George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic special effects, over five weeks by performing in motion capture suits, with 160 cameras scanning their bodies and facial expressions.

Furthermore, the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor helped them extend movements into younger bodies. One billion computing hours collectively logged from 1,000 special effects pioneers across four different studios and this is the extraordinary result. I was captivated.

What’s more, if light is intrinsic to Voyage’s triumph, then so is shadow. Our world is darker – but that won’t stop ABBA pushing the boundaries; this is a breakthrough, landmark entertainment and a masterclass in showmanship and restraint, too. 

‘jaw-dropping’ Voyage

One reason the evening was so enjoyable is that it is deliriously theatrical; “To be or not to be,” says the enigmatic Benny avatar to the audience at ABBA Voyage, musing between songs. “That is no longer the question.” Stunning effects blur boundaries between the digital and the “real world”. 

Another is the euphoric setlist that carries us through 95 minutes of glittering pop heaven. 20 classic songs of pathos and romantic despair perfectly balanced with new material from 2021’s surprisingly good studio album of the same title. (ABBA have recorded more songs, to warrant repeat visits.)

In fact, the effortless hits that they created are prodigious. Voyage’s setlist includes not only “Fernando”, “SOS” (ultimate banger) and “Chiquitita” (sung against a dramatic lunar eclipse) but also a scorching “Summer Night City”. One song is performed brilliantly by the glassy eyed avatars in sassy rhinestone-emblazoned pink velour jumpsuits. 

At one point during “Dancing Queen” I stood up and swore. Not just ABBA’s most perfect song, but arguably pop music itself. Crucially, the 10-piece real life band of musicians are energetic, fleshing out the crowd-pleasing retro vocals amid the kaleidoscopic ripples of light and futuristic video screens. 

Still, there’s a couple of moments in this virtual comeback that sum up the spirit of the show. Anni-Frid pays tribute to her grandmother, Agnetha thanks fans for the decades of support and Benny tells us that we are the fifth member of ABBA. This beautiful, melancholic, bitter-sweet retrospective gets quite emotional by the time the night concludes with epic ballad “The Winner Takes It All”. 

ABBA Voyage (Photo by Johan Persson)

Ultimately, Voyage feels like the most meaningful and ingenious cultural moment I’ve experienced in 10 years of loitering around cultural events. I loved it to bits. 

Having listened to around 80 ABBA songs live over 48 hours, my love for them is solidified forever more.

See, I do have a heart.

Mamma Mia! booking until 5 March 2023 

Mamma Mia! – The Party is booking until 26 February 2023 

Abba Voyage is booking until May 2023

, , ,

Tyrant Alex Belfield: Guilty of Stalking- Sentenced to 5 Years In Prison

Some stories feel so astonishing that every time you think of them again, you have to sit with the basic concept for a few moments just to remind yourself how staggeringly outrageous the whole affair is.

Alas, Alex Belfield has been found guilty of the relentless stalking of other broadcasters, including Jeremy Vine, who he subjected to an “avalanche of hatred”.

The 42-year-old, from Nottingham, is due to be sentenced on 16 September and has been warned he could be jailed.

Let’s do the brief summary: The ex-radio host, who presented on BBC Radio Leeds, was labelled “the Jimmy Savile of trolling” during a trial which heard he repeatedly posted or sent abusive messages, videos and emails during the period 2010-2022.

Alex Belfield & Jeremy Vine

Following this destructive trial, though, has frequently resembled tipping-out time at Arkham Asylum. A fascinating story that’s so strange it could only be true.

Belfield, of course, had made claims that this was a BBC prosecution. This is not the case – these were criminal proceedings. 

Anyway, Jurors deliberated for 14 hours and 27 minutes before reaching the verdicts, following a four-week trial that began on 5 July: 

  • Rozina Breen – not guilty
  • Liz Green – not guilty
  • Helen Thomas – not guilty
  • Stephanie Hirst – not guilty
  • Bernard Spedding – guilty (majority verdict)
  • Ben Hewis – guilty (unanimous verdict)
  • Philip Dehany – not guilty to the charge on the indictment but guilty of the alternative charge of “simple” stalking (majority verdict)
  • Jeremy Vine – not guilty to the charge on the indictment but guilty of the alternative charge of “simple” stalking (unanimous verdict)

Giving evidence to the trial, Mr Vine described Belfield’s behaviour as “absolutely Olympic-level stalking, even for broadcasting”.

The CPS’s case was that the sustained nature of this abuse amounted to stalking. 

Referring to videos shown in court from Belfield’s YouTube show, Vine said he wished he had not watched some of the content.

Vine added in court: “I wished I hadn’t. Watching this man is like swimming in sewage.”

By PA News Agency

The CPS statement concluded: “His actions online, whether in the form of messages sent directly to victims, personal comments directed at them from his broadcasts or him contacting friends, family and colleagues had the same devastating impact on his victims.” 

Serial stalker Belfield argued in his defence that as a journalist, his conduct amounted to free speech. However, it was plain for anyone to see that his behaviour went beyond the legal, sane limits of freedom of speech. 

As such, it is no mean feat to dominate a platform where the people on the right are incredibly angry about free speech, and those on the left are incredibly angry about hate speech.

As for the wider lessons of the scandal, what a lot it says about a society crossing the threshold of madness. As tech visionary Jaron Lanier has long been excellent at pointing out, the best way to keep people on platforms like YouTube and Twitter is to make them angry. 

There’s parallels with far-right Infowars owner Alex Jones, whom this week has been ordered to pay $4.1m in damages over his repeated claims that the deadly Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.

The outcome in Nottingham this week is many things, but one of those is a cautionary tale about what happens when “news” is entirely unmoored from facts. He dug his own grave.

Furthermore, having represented himself at the trial, and declining to give any evidence, conspiracy theorist Belfield stated that his legal fees are £300,000. 

Conspiracy-theorist Alex Belfield

Against the backdrop of the actually excruciating cost of living crisis, however, this spectacle is increasingly sickening. I mean, it’s also a bit like unscrewing the top of your skull and pouring Sambuca directly on to your brain.

Nevertheless, I felt bad for pretty much everyone caught in Belfield’s crazy orbit—including Alex himself, whose sorry trajectory follows the same squalid arc as so many strivers who have tragically, disastrously tried to forge their own mythos. His character and wellbeing have been really damaged by his unpleasant social media addiction.

Remember, I also received a ‘legal letter’ for my exacting 2020 account of the expanded universe of all its gnarled and wrongheaded characters. 

My reply? ‘Do not contact me on behalf of your ‘client’ again or I will have no choice but to refer the matter – along with everyone else – to the police.’

‘legal letter’ from stalker and conspiracy theorist Alex Belfield

Funny, I thought he appreciated free speech; but that’s limited to his own abusive free speech. The charging police officer and Jeremy Vine are believed to have launched separate defamation proceedings.

So, what are we looking at here? Anything from 6 months to 10 years in prison. A suspended sentence would suffice – I hope Belfield gets psychiatric help. Truly. 

So that’s the short version, but of course it all feels inadequate. Even listing every individual injustice would render this blog dissertation length; at even cursory depth, each story is beyond disturbing and alarming. 

Alex Belfield

On the plus side, the trial judge, Justice Saini, told Belfield that he needed to be “extra careful about your online communications… There’s a good chance of a custodial sentence,” he added.

Belfield may as well believe his own lies, because there is nothing to be gained from him not believing them. Except perhaps a sense of decency.

Still, as Belfield is now discovering, very few things in this life are more horrifyingly overrated than “having your day in court”.

UPDATE

Belfield has been sentenced to five years and a half years in jail. He will now serve half of his sentence in prison and the remainder on licence. Restraining orders have also been granted in relation to all of the complainants, including those Belfield was not convicted of stalking. Justice.


, , , , ,

Here’s Your Definitive Guide to Edinburgh Fringe 2022 (you’re welcome)

It’s nearly that time again: Edinburgh is set to host more than 3,000 shows when it starts next week.

The Fringe was cancelled completely in 2020 because of the pandemic but made a limited return last year with about 600 shows. But, top venues have warned that ticket sales are down by about a third relative to pre-pandemic levels, with the cost of living crisis, summer’s travel disruption and Covid cited as reasons.

I have no idea why the bone brained bosses made the horrendous decision not to have an app for this year’s event. And don’t get me started on the scandalous accommodation costs. Not a great look. Removing barriers to attending the Fringe for artists and audiences is a key priority for the Fringe Society.

(There’s always the Free Fringe, though, if you are feeling the pinch.)

Gulp.

First up: Lauryn Redding’s terrific Bloody Elle. First seen at The Royal Exchange, this gig musical is full of quirky original music performed live on stage. At Traverse, obvs.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

Next, I’m curious to see Uma Nada-Rajah’s new dark comedy Exodus, at Traverse, too. It’s about politicians and posturing, and exposes systematic deception and indifference to human suffering.     

I am looking forward to seeing Afghanistan is Not Funny by Fringe veteran Henry Naylor at Gilded Balloon, Teviot. 

Elsewhere, Silent Faces ask why half the world’s population is excluded in a funny, pop-culture piece Godot is a Woman, at Pleasance Dome. If you need to laugh (don’t we all) don’t miss fleet-footed Nina Conti’s hilarious The Dating Show at Pleasance Courtyard

Horizon – Performance Created in England is back with its second showcase, this year focussing on tour-ready performancesa curated programme of ten artists making vital, genre challenging work. Check it out.

Feminist and female-led Rash Dash are always up to something daring. This year, they present Look At Me Don’t Look At Me – a two-hander featuring a piano, a synth, two microphones, a shaky egg and 14 original songs. 

Over at Assembly Checkpoint is Americana – A Murder Ballad – an intriguing premiere by leading Scottish playwright Morna Young. 

At Gilded Balloon Justin Huertas’s wildly original musical Lizard Boy unpacks self-love and acceptance, and particularly finding love today as a gay person of colour.

Lizard Boy

Indeed, Summerhall is essential for any Fringe visit. While you’re there go and see Invisible Mending; a show about love, grief, and knitting. Also: grab a ticket for Maimuna Memon’s Manic Street CreatureBill Buckhurst (Sister Act) directsCarly Wijs (Us/Them) returns to Summerhall with Boy. Don’t miss it. While you are there, have a G&T and head over to Luke Hereford’s fun autobiographical queer cabaret, Grandmother’s Closet.

Among other highlights, Caligari at Underbelly Cowgate, I’m sure, will be a riot: Five actor-musicians reimagine the seminal silent film, with the doctor’s victims taking centre stage. While you are there, go and see Max Fosh’s bonkers but brilliant drama-comedy Zocial Butterfly. I really want to catch Cassie and the Lights; a spellbinding play with music about children and the care system, too.

Paines Plough’s Roundabout is usually good value for money. Get along to world premieres Sami Ibrahim’s A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain – a poetic fable of an immigration system that mirrors our own. In Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s play Half Empty Glasses, a young Black student who auditions for a prestigious music school, but becomes disenchanted by the lack of Black names on the curriculum.

Half Empty Glasses – photo by Paines Plough

Over at Greenside, storyteller Kim Kalish’s The Funny Thing About Death looks like a tonic. Brain and Hemingway  piece about a songwriter with severe writer’s block – also looks fun.

If you missed the laddish Olivier Award nominated Choir of Man originally here in 2017, or last year in London, you can catch it once more.

Succession fans will want to take a walk over to Assembly George Square to catch a glimpse of legend Brian Cox. The actor and his wife have teamed up to produce new play She/Her. A hot ticket. 

So, there you have it, that’s the end of my Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022 guide.

It’s good to be back, isn’t it?

Choir of Man

Anyway, I hope you have found some use in this guide to what the Fringe world has on offer. 

If you have show tips, tweet me: @mrcarl_woodward – I’ll be updating this blog weekly. 

, , , ,

Suzie Miller: “Don’t give up. If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.” 

When Prima Facie hits our cinemas next month cinemas as part of NT Live to see Jodie Comer’s sell-out West End debut the play’s writer Suzie Miller will be watching intently to see how it translates from stage to screen. Prima Facie shines a light on the Australian legal system. Around 60,000 people shared in Tessa’s story at the Harold Pinter Theatre – from 21st July the conversation continues with the rest of the world.

Suzie Miller © by Helen Murray

We are talking on the telephone, a couple of weeks after Opening Night, in which Comer received rave reviews. “I just think that NT Live is such a wonderful thing, it makes theatre accessible to everyone and is an astonishing leveller and the ultimate invite to experience theatre filmed,” Miller says.

An Australian-British criminal defence lawyer working in the human rights sector, writer Miller witnessed first-hand how the Legal System fails most sexual assault victims. She studied while working as a lawyer and left the bar to be a full-time playwright in 2010.  

“The play began when I was studying criminal law and how it is structures and thinking there’s something about the way sexual assault that is doesn’t feel right – as went through my practice in law it continued to come through to me that it just wasn’t working for victims,” Miller tells me.

Due process is everything: “I was and still am committed to the concept of innocence until proven guilty. I also think that sexual assault is a special area that is not necessarily being catered to by a very male focussed legal system.”  

At almost 2 hours long and with no interval, the play packs a lot in. Essentially, a play about a lawyer who specialises in defending men accused of sexual assault, until she is assaulted herself: the insecurities she’s faced, heartbreak, sexism, misogyny, being told to look and behave a certain way. 

I mention that Comer owned the courtroom; a theatre animal. “Jodie is such an incredible screen actress,” she says with some admiration. “It is astonishing how she stepped out on the stage (Comer had only been in one play before, in Scarborough, when she was 16) and become a theatre actor. I just think that she’s born to do theatre. She is incredible.” 

Suzie Miller with Jodie Comer © by Helen Murray

The play, it is fair to say, recieved a mixed reception here; some critics were not enthusiastic about the text itself. In a four-star review, the Evening Standard said: “Suzie Miller’s script is a great vehicle rather than a truly great play, however – shrewd and economical in its analysis of how the system treats assault survivors, but schematic in its plotting.”

The Guardian’s review stated that “[Comer] roars through Suzie Miller’s script. The play roars, too, sometimes too loudly in its polemic, but Comer works overtime to elevate these moments,” and that the script “ falls into a loudly lecturing tone at the end.” 

I ask her how the critical and audience responses varied here to the Australia run. She responds pragmatically. “Somehow having a woman stand on stage and make a direct political address within the confines of her story, it is bordering on being a lecture,” she says. “Look at Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird or Mark Rylance’s final speech in Jerusalem. Hailed as mesmerising. It seems to be something that some critics here are not used to. You know you’ve made a difference when the play is not just in the arts pages,” Miller says. 

Still, quibbles about polemic do not matter, Prima Facie was one of the hottest tickets in Europe; with Killing Eve star Comer attracting the mythical kind of post West End show frenzy not seen in years – and her legions of teenage fans love her. Truly.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

For Miller, though, the idea that someone is consenting unless they tell you that they are not “doesn’t fit with women’s lived experience” and she thinks that “something in the legal system is fundamentally broken.” It is hard to disagree. It becomes clear as we talk that this is a universal issue. 

In fact, figures released earlier this year showed that in the 12 months to September 2021, only 1.3% of the 63,136 rape offences recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged.

“I think what consent runs through everyone’s relationship and what sexual entitlement is and when it should be called out. It can also happen to anyone. So, it’s about a huge change and a group of Barrister’s are going out to schools to talk about consent which is fantastic,” Miller says.

Prima Facie has partnered with The Schools Consent Project and has given away free tickets to 10 partner school groups so that teachers can bring students to see the show and access further ancillary support. Funds have also been donated to support the essential work the charity does to educate young people in the UK about consent.

Set up in 2014 by barrister Kate Parker, The Schools Consent Project is a charity that sends lawyers into schools to teach young people (11–18-year-olds) the legal definition of consent. Their aim is to normalise these sorts of conversations; to empower young people to identify and communicate boundaries, and to respect them in others. To date, they have worked with over 20,000 young people across the country.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie © by Helen Murray

Miler believes a rich cultural education is key to changing the world: “It’s fundamental,” she tells me. “Theatre is the town square. It is so important – people can pretend to be other things, whilst an audience breathes in the same emotional mist. I feel like it offers a way of interpreting the world. A writer’s job is to show the paradox of being human. I went to law to change the world and now in theatre I still want to do that and make a difference.” 

So which writers inspire her? “Well, growing up I read a lot of Shakespeare. I was mentored by Edward Albee early in my career. All hail mighty Edward. Dennis Kelly, Mike Bartlett, Caryl Churchill and Maria Irene Fornes,”

Looking to the future, Comer will reprise her role in Prima Facie on Broadway. It will have a limited engagement at one of New York’s Shubert theaters, with the exact venue and dates to be announced. “It has been an absolute privilege to tell Tessa’s story here in London over the past few months and to now have the opportunity to take Prima Facie to New York is a dream come true,” said Comer in a recent statement.

With Prima Facie playwright Suzie Miller on Opening Night

In conversation Miller is as tranquil and delightful as she is compellingly eloquent. You’re relatively productive, I add. What’s your secret? “Don’t give up,’ she says quickly. “If you feel passionate, just keep doing it. There will be knocks and hardships and it is easy to give up along the road. But keep going, you will see it all come together.”  

Prima Facie is released to cinemas around the world via NT Live and in association with Sky Arts on Thursday 21 July 2022.

, , , , ,

£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

The cynic, as Oscar Wilde put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For commentators, that switches into reverse: indifferent to price, we are expected to deliberate value. 

Full disclosure, I am privileged to not have to usually pay for tickets. Occasionally, though, I despair. I feel there is no place for the working class in theatre. This is by no means my first rodeo, either.

This week, premium tickets for Mike Bartlett’s play Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson – were put on sale with ticket prices that had been spiked to £400.

If you thought that was bad, though, add the additional burden of ATG’s booking fees, the total came to £460. £460!  A sorry state of affairs.

Let’s do a brief summary: Cock is directed by Marianne Elliott and made headlines after understudy Harper-Jackson stepped into replace Taron Egerton who left suddenly due to ‘personal reasons’ having fainted during the first preview.

A spokesperson for the 90-minute play defended the unprecedented ticket prices as the result of “supply and demand.” That’s showbiz, honey. However, following backlash producers Elliott & Harper subsequently reduced the cost of the seats significantly.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The world may be shifting, but we must remind commercial producers – especially those recently in receipt of three rounds of significant Culture Recovery Funds – the value of accessible and affordable tickets, and a sense of the very real dangers should they discard it.

The risk of knowing the price of everything is that you can end up forgetting about its value.

Nevertheless, 15% of tickets sold have been at £20 and there is a daily lottery with tickets at this price point. Ambassadors Theatre is also a small house with only 444 seats. But most of these £20 tickets require a degree of flexibility not compatible with most people’s lives.

Still, the West End is a supply-and-demand business – and if there is escalating demand, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from. Even so, accessible tickets equal sustainability, as fair ticket prices encourage theatre-going generally and are key to the creative industries survival.

Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s major subsidised theatres, was £52.17. 

Anyway, Cock briefly became the most expensive play in West End history, thanks to dynamic pricing. First developed for the retail sector, dynamic pricing software uses algorithms to tell a theatre what they can get away with charging. It felt like a tipping point.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Top-price Cock premium seats are now £175. Ones that had been greedily priced at £350 are now £150, additionally £300 tickets are now on sale at £125 plus booking fees. Quite frankly, still absurd for a 90-minute play.

In reality, however, inflated ticket prices – particularly West End ticket prices – risk alienating an entire generation of future audiences as increasingly unaffordable tickets further limits audiences to very rich white people – whose wealth largely surged during the pandemic.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have predicted the UK will fall into recession this year. What’s more, an estimated 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay food and energy bills, as rising prices, and higher taxes squeeze budgets. This, coupled with the ongoing decimation of cultural education in our state schools, is a theatre time bomb. Potential audience members now face the choice between heating and eating, rather than whether to have an interval ice cream.

Yet the ever more pressing wider issue is that theatre’s future, and indeed recovery, rests entirely on the next generation of theatre-goers. Price them out at your peril. Habits are changing fast; with disrupted education, rising rents and low wages.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Producers Elliott & Harper have stated that they will not be commenting further, but this outcome speaks for itself.

This U-turn was not just a people-power social media victory: this was direct action. A historic watershed.

That is all.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June

, , ,

Review: Oklahoma! — beguiling, brave & occasionally contentious

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical is no cinch to sell to a modern audience. So fair play to Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s stirring Tony-winning production for shooting for something new.

Oklahoma! Photo credit: Marc Brenner

It does so by bringing bring to the stage a most wonderful selection of songs; it does so in a stark and dynamic version and an ending that needed special negotiations with the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. 

This is a modern, edgy and disquieting take that injects adventure and sexuality into a classic musical, making it fresh-minted.

Yet, in some ways, not everything works. Some artistic choices are obtrusive and clunky. No overture?

Still, the result is a beguiling, brave and occasionally contentious 3 hours of flying corn, racial tension and lust. Lots of lust. 

Using Daniel Kluger’s plucky arrangements, the nimble 7-piece band keep things ticking over. There’s stunning dance and startling close-up video projection work.

Oklahoma! photo: Marc Brenner

Then there is the design, or rather the anti-design, by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher. They set everything in a sort of sun-soaked village hall with trestle tables and the audience traverse on two sides. There is light – a lot of light. And then sudden darkness. 

For her part, lead cow girl Anoushka Lucas is a star. Her Laurey, stunning to watch is torn between guitar wielding Curly (Arthur Darvill) and shy Jud (Patrick Vaill). 

While containing the giggling frisky Ado Annie (Marisha Wallace), the “girl who cain’t say no”, tears the roof off the Young Vic with her number. 

The Oklahoma! company

Having said all that, this revisionist production is a mixed blessing, but it is a masterful reinvention that should win new fans. The American Dream wins, but at what price?

The Young Vic continues to be an essential theatrical destination.

At the Young Vic, London, until 25 June

,

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella: Not So Happy Ever After

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cinderella will close next month less than a year after its West End premiere.

Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

And so to how the day unfolded. The Stage ran a Sunday ‘Exclusive’ – on a Bank Holiday weekend – that the doomed musical was closing in June, as the creative team prepare to launch the musical on Broadway, where it will supposedly preview from February 2023. 
To recap, the current cast were told at 5.45pm — a statement was released at 6.30pm on Sunday.

LW Management wrote to the cast and crew

Dear Cinderella Family,

It is with regret that we’re writing to let you know that the Really Useful Group’s production of Cinderella will perform its final show at the Gillian Lynne theatre on Sunday June 12th…. Thank you for your immeasurable contribution to the show. We should all be very proud of Cinderella and all that we have achieved together, and we look forward to our paths crossing again before too long.

Having made his peace with losing out on Employer of the Year 2022, Lloyd Webber said: “I am incredibly proud of Cinderella. Not only did it get some of the best reviews of my career, but we led the charge to reopen the West End, ensuring that theatre and live entertainment remained relevant and in the news.”

He added: “mounting a new show in the midst of Covid has been an unbelievable challenge”.  

I can tell you that a mere four months ago, I attempted to discuss the beleaguered Cinderella with Lloyd Webber at the Palladium and he literally ran off down a corridor.

Anyway, In a 164-minute video on Instagram, actress Summer Strallen (who was due to join the cast as the Queen in July) discussed the situation in detail, saying that, while her agent received an email, she “basically got fired by social media, which is just not OK”.

Needless to say, we’ve been here before with School of Rock closing and a broken-hearted cast finding out on Twitter. The way present and future creative teams, crew and casual front of house staff continue to be discarded is completely unacceptable. 

The cast and crew of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber/PA)

Lloyd Webber is believed to have been making escalating losses, LW Theatres suffered pre-tax losses of £28.1 million in the 12 months to June 2021, with box office revenues down 97% on the same period the year before. 

Furthermore, company’s annual accounts show the company’s staffing reduction as a result of the pandemic, with LW Theatres employing a monthly average of 418 people in the year ending June 2020 and 217 in 2021, a reduction of almost half. If Cinderella, backed with Lloyd Webber’s millions, can fail, so can many others.

A spokesperson for the Really Useful Group said on Monday: “Everyone involved in Cinderella was contacted by call, email or in person (some through agents) before the news went live in the evening. Every effort was made to ensure people were notified before it went live, while trying to manage how quickly it would move on social media once people were informed.”

Which seems a little on the nose, even by the debased standards of the age. Like they weren’t in control of the timing of this announcement? Despicable.

The cast and crew of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Cinderella at the Gillian Lynne Theatre (Andrew Lloyd Webber/PA)

In the meantime, what we really need now is systemic change so this can never happen again. In theatre, few creative freelancers and performers speak out for fear of losing work or being labelled ‘difficult to work with’. Change is overdue and every employer has the legal duty to ensure that their staff are treated with dignity. Until then there can be no happy ever after – for anyone. 

I admired Lloyd Webber for keeping theatre in the news during the darkest moments of the Covid lockdowns; The 74-year-old even said that he was prepared to be arrested if authorities tried to intervene in his reopening plans.

He also volunteered to personally take part in an early Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine trial.

About 60 people attended an EQUITY protest against the handling of Cinderella closure

In the end, though, bungling the closure of Cinderella after a global pandemic is the ultimate measure of failure from Lord Lloyd Webber. 

, ,

Jerusalem returns

If life does indeed come down to just a single moment, mine probably arrived last week on Easter Monday when I witnessed Mark Rylance on stage as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. His combination of theatricality and verbal vivacity is extraordinary.

First staged at the Royal Court in 2009, Jez Butterworth’s seismic play about national identity has returned to the West End for a limited 16 week engagement. Following record-breaking runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as well on Broadway in 2011, this stint is set to rake in £14 million.

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem on Broadway

Sonia Friedman’s globe conquering revival tells the story of a freewheeling man that faces eviction for unauthorised encampment in a Wiltshire wood on the day of the local fair.

Butterworth said that when he first saw Rylance as Rooster it was “the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen”. Reader, I can corroborate this claim, Jerusalem is the purest form of theatre gold and Rylance is hypnotic. Underneath the rich and decaying leafy Brechtian design by ULTZ live chickens, a tortoise, a goldfish, and various lost souls. It is a totally spellbinding, haunting and unforgettable evening. 

Jerusalem at the Apollo

A tatty 30ft St George’s Day flag drop curtain greets you as you take to your seat. Butterworth’s epochal writing, it’s fair to say, hit me with the same force; in the character of “Rooster” Byron, we find an emblem of both England and the English language, like Falstaff on acid. “I dreamt all night of waterfalls,” Rooster says at the start, “Riches. Fame. A glimpse of God’s tail… Comes a time you’d swap it all for a solid golden p— on English soil.” 

Theatre’s all about timing, and with enthusiastic audiences flocking to auditoriums, Ian Rickson’s extraordinary production has returned just at the right time. Rooster’s bonkers tales about giants on the A1 take on a spiritual believability under Rylance’s stagecraft, but they’re also very, very funny. In any case, ambivalence is the key word here, I think. 

There is something mesmerising about a man living in a wood who hasn’t woken up yet to the tragedy of his predicament, who is still left beating the same old drum. Literally, culturally, and politically. 

The elephant in the room here is, of course, Rooster’s Romany heritage – the “gypo” slurs, the gold jewellery, the fair, the violence, the caravan in the woods and the drugs. (Butterworth’s play owes much to the time he spent with a retired Romany builder called Micky Lay). Stronger efforts to improve outcomes and representation for these severely disadvantaged communities are overdue. To this end, and following minor tweaks, Rylance’s portrayal never feels offensive or clumsy. 

Real-world politics cast a subtly different light on proceedings; this restaging reveals a yearning for a bygone Britain that never really existed. The Englishness which Jerusalem supposedly explored is now an even knottier concept than it was in 2009. 

Ian Rickson and Jez Butterworth

And anyway, Butterworth is adamant that critics still miss the point. “If this is any way a state-of-the-nation play, then I have failed abjectly,” he said at a recent event. 

He added: “You know how much I give a monkeys about the ‘state of the nation’, adding that Englishness was not a concern of his, explaining: “I don’t feel very English… The reason it is back is my daughter Bel never got the chance to see it.” 

Amazing. 

We need to celebrate and enjoy Jerusalem now so we can remember there was a time, before the cripplingly dull, joyless, and inflexible wave of new writing that engulfed everything, when going to the theatre used to be so much fun. 
Jerusalem is old-fashioned (3 hours, two intervals) and its return wonderfully sticks a bonfire under the problematic theatre echo chamber that caused the great British sense of humour failure of 2012-2020

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem

A theatre moment to cherish for ever. 

Jerusalem is at the Apollo theatre, London until 17 August.

, , ,

Olivier Awards 2022: Life of Pi & Cabaret storm the night

So there we go! Cabaret triumphed at the Olivier awards last night, with Eddie Redmayne winning best actor in a musical for his turn as The Emcee. The show won seven of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best actress in a musical for Jessie Buckley.
Age and reason, however, isn’t going to stop me saying I really enjoyed the live performances, I thought Steph McKeon came closest to holding a tune and reckoned Jason Manford did his best.

Nor will it shake my belief that the key moment of the night came when, to general murmurs of agreement, Manford and Society of London Theatre president Eleanor Lloyd reflected on “the total clusterfuck that was live theatre during a global pandemic”. ‘Cos that’s the back-to-front world we live in right now.


Back to the Future: The Musical won Best New Musical, while genius Pride and Prejudice (Sort Of) won Best Entertainment or Comedy.
Hurrah!

Back to The Future the musical

There was a triumphant moment when Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Kseniia Nikolaieva performed her country’s national anthem.

There were also a few debatable decisions, of course, but many others that just seemed downright mystifying, such as Get Up, Stand Up winning Best original score or new orchestrations, Constellations winning, and a ‘eco’ green carpet.

But Life of Pi – the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker-winning prize novel – won five awards, including a first for the Olivier’s; the seven cast members who expertly operate the puppet of Richard Parker.

Life of Pi’s Richard Parker walks the green carpet

It is a wonderful play, a thrilling journey into the imagination through trauma, all but defying gravity in its staggering stage design and jaw-dropping puppetry with profoundly moving moments. It is superbly acted, unbearably moving and visually electrifying. It was the evening’s real winner.

Best revival

A Number – Old Vic

Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre – WINNER!

The Normal Heart – National Theatre

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida

Best entertainment or comedy play

The Choir of Man – Arts theatre

Pantoland at the Palladium – London Palladium

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre – WINNER!

The Shark is Broken – Ambassadors theatre

Isobel McArthur (centre) was presented with her trophy by Hamilton Giles Terera and & Juliet’s Cassidy Janson

Best musical revival

Anything Goes – Barbican 

Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Spring Awakening – Almeida

The Royal Albert Hall

Best costume design

Jon Morrell for Anything Goes – Barbican

Christopher Oram for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Tom Scutt for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre

Catherine Zuber for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre – WINNER!

Best sound design

Ian Dickinson for 2:22 A Ghost Story – Noël Coward theatre

Carolyn Downing for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre

Nick Lidster for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Gareth Owen for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre

Best original score or new orchestrations

Anything Goes – New Orchestrations: Bill Elliott, David Chase and Rob Fisher 

Back to the Future: The Musical – Composers: Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard; Orchestrations: Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook 

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Orchestrator: Simon Hale – WINNER!

Life of Pi – Composer: Andrew T Mackay

The cast of Get Up, Stand Up

Best theatre choreographer

Finn Caldwell for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre
Julia Cheng for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre
Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes – Barbican – WINNER!
Sonya Tayeh for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre

Best actor in a supporting role

Seven actors who play the Tiger for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!
Dino Fetscher for The Normal Heart – National Theatre 
Nathaniel Parker for The Mirror and the Light – Gielgud theatre
Danny Lee Wynter for The Normal Heart – National Theatre

Best actress in a supporting role

Tori Burgess for Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre
Liz Carr for The Normal Heart – National Theatre –WINNER! 
Christina Gordon for Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) – Criterion theatre
Akiya Henry for The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida

Liz Carr accepting her award

Best set design

Tim Hatley for Design and Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell for Puppets for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!
Tim Hatley for Design and Finn Ross for Video Design for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Derek McLane for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre
Tom Scutt for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre

Best lighting design

Neil Austin for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Isabella Byrd for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre
Tim Lutkin for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!

Best actress in a supporting role in a musical

Gabrielle Brooks for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Lyric theatre
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt for Cinderella – Gillian Lynne theatre
Carly Mercedes Dyer for Anything Goes – Barbican 
Liza Sadovy for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Best actor in a supporting role in a musical

Clive Carter for Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre
Hugh Coles for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Elliot Levey for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Gary Wilmot for Anything Goes – Barbican

Best actor in a musical

Olly Dobson for Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre
Arinzé Kene for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Lyric theatre
Robert Lindsay for Anything Goes – Barbican
Eddie Redmayne for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!

Best actress in a musical

Jessie Buckley for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Sutton Foster for Anything Goes – Barbican 
Beverley Knight for The Drifters Girl – Garrick theatre
Stephanie McKeon for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Best actress

Lily Allen for 2:22 A Ghost Story – Noël Coward theatre
Sheila Atim for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre – WINNER!
Emma Corrin for Anna X – Harold Pinter theatre
Cush Jumbo for Hamlet – Young Vic

Best actor

Hiran Abeysekera for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!
Ben Daniels for The Normal Heart – National Theatre 
Omari Douglas for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre
Charles Edwards for Best of Enemies – Young Vic

Best director

Rebecca Frecknall for Cabaret – The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse theatre – WINNER!
Michael Longhurst for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre
Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes – Barbican 
Max Webster for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre

Outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre

10 Nights – Bush Theatre
Folk – Hampstead Theatre Downstairs
The Invisible Hand – Kiln theatre
Old Bridge – Bush theatre – WINNER!
A Place for We – Park theatre

Best new play

2:22 A Ghost Story – Noël Coward theatre
Best of Enemies – Young Vic
Cruise – Duchess theatre
Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre – WINNER!

Best new musical

Back to the Future: The Musical – Adelphi theatre – WINNER!
The Drifters Girl – Garrick theatre
Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Lyric theatre
Moulin Rouge! The Musical – Piccadilly theatre

Five special recognition award winners

Lisa Burger
Bob King
Gloria Louis
Susie Sainsbury
Sylvia Young

, , , ,

CONTACT’s new boss Keisha Thompson: “The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do.” 

“The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do,” says Keisha Thompson, its new chief executive and artistic director,

Thompson, 32, is a Manchester based poet, performance artist and producer. From June, she will be the first black woman, Mancunian, and the youngest to run the organisation in its 50-year history. She has both the experience and the confidence to redefine what an artistic director does and how a youth led arts venue might work for the city.  

Keisha Thompson
Keisha Thompson

She was supported through CONTACT’s dynamic engagement programme as a young poet, writer, and performance artist and in 2015 became part of the core staff team after being encouraged by a fellow staff member to see herself as a producer. 

Thompson bubbles with energy, and beams when I congratulate her and ask her what the best thing about theatre is? “The beautiful thing about working in this sector is the care and the freedom. I like to call it tangible ambition – being around people who speak amazing things and bring things into existence. I really enjoy that.” 

And the worst? “I suppose people who are outside of theatre can often feel very excluded, and that makes me feel very sad… The fact it can seem so insular, or esoteric to people. That upsets me.” 

She expands on the role the institution has played in her career: “CONTACT is very much an organisation that took me under its wing and never let me go. Growing up, I was one of those young people that engaged with culture across the city, bursting with creative people. CONTACT gives you that infinite sense that you can be an artist, you can collaborate with likeminded people – it has given me that understanding of the sector and of myself.” 

CONTACT, Manchester

She says she was greatly inspired by creative practitioner Gaylene Gould. “I remember Gaylene saying two things that landed with me. In fact, one of the things I did to get this role. Firstly, the need to be your full self; don’t be in any situation, role, or place if you are not allowed to bring your authentic self. That’s where you are in your power and that is when you thrive. Secondly, to get into a senior role at BFI Gaylene realised that she needed to leave. To step away, get experience elsewhere and come back. I was the Young People’s Producer at Contact for 5 years – and I loved it – but I could feel that I was starting to outgrow the role. I went away to the Arts Council to do the job that I am doing currently with the World Reimagined project and returned.”

Thompson answers my questions thoughtfully and her soft Mancunian accent, is just as compelling in its studied cadence and tone. “I remember being a teenager and I knew all the cool young people went to CONTACT. I didn’t always feel comfortable when I went into theatre buildings. CONTACT was different. It immediately gave me that sense that you could just be an artist, collaborate with people who looked like you. It taught me that understanding of the sector and of myself,” says Thompson. 

We talk about community, she tells me that arts organisations “need to be responsive to its communities,” and that it requires listening and sensitivity, as well being engaging. “It’s not enough to just put on a show, really. You must honour the stories that you choose to tell. Ask yourself if you are, in fact, the right venue to tell it and if you are going to do so maybe understand what things need to be in place. Make sure that those people and those stories are fully taken care of.” 

Keisha Thompson

As for the future, prioritising youth voice has meant CONTACT is always at the forefront of important issues; local young people and artists lead decision-making, the board of trustees is 50 percent under 30. The chair is 28. “Theatre can change lives,” she says. “I want CONTACT to feel like a second home, where people can spend time, watch shows and have fun. I want individuals to walk in and just get stuck in. I cannot wait to have a big party with everyone. The doors will be open, so come and say hello.”