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The Hills of California

Every so often, you’re watching a play about ordinary, deprived, unlucky people and something divine happens and they are are no longer ordinary. The transformative power of live theatre is very strong in Jez Butterworth’s new play.

We open in a Victorian Guesthouse in Blackpool in 1976, during the driest summer in 200 years. The joint is called Seaview (where there’s no view of the sea), and a family is gathering to say goodbye to their dying mother.

The rooms are given the names of American states: “I’m going to Minnesota”.

From here, we spiral back through time.

In the beautifully layered piece, we see younger and older versions of the four sisters.

At one point, matriarch Veronica coaches them, “Now then. Obstacles. Children, who else, in their career, when they were starting out, faced a barrage, nay avalanche of seemingly unsurmountable hurdle snags, bars, blocks and impediments.”

This is a fine piece of craftsmanship, with almost every detail in place. Magic runs through nearly all of Butterworth’s 3 hour drama. (Child cast Nicola Turner, Nancy Allsop, Lara McDonnell and Sophia Ally as the younger singing siblings are terrific).

To say that Hills of California is well lit doesn’t do exact justice. It is perfectly lit, by Natasha Chivers, which is to say, the colours are lustrous, the images so completely composed they are almost static – picture postcards of grief.

Yet the most memorable parts of the beautifully acted female-led play don’t *always* reach for that special clarity that makes action memorably poetic.

However, the details accumulate; nearly every detail of meaning is worked out, right down to each flicker of emotion in the supporting characters eyes.

On Rob Howell’s revolving set, with endless stairs, director Sam Mendes handles the cast immaculately; Mendes’ love of the material is palpable; it regularly makes one smile and gulp.

Butterworth isn’t afraid to hook you and to keep hooking you. There are no weak performances, either. The finely balanced tone of Hills of California is startling, both brutal and lyrical. An expansive evening that is heavy with the anticipation of buried secrets about to be revealed.

Laura Donnelley, playing both Veronica and estranged sibling Joan, soars particularly as the matriarch – her words are convincingly hers. Donnelley, Butterworth’s wife, has never been better, you don’t see her trying to act.

As Veronica, she conveys her remorseless watchfulness, sharp intelligence and chip of ice in the heart by coaching her daughters on the path from Lancashire to the London Palladium. She creates a driven, embattled woman – a woman prepared to do whatever it takes for her children to succeed.

“A song is a dream, a place to be, somewhere to live,” she explains, as she gathers them at her feet. 

A few trims and tucks would render it sleeker but part of Butterworth’s charm is the scaffolding that goes into the structure. There is nothing middle of the road about it.

More significantly, the emotional violence of this play is violent; you can’t get it out of your mind. There’s no question Veronica is guilty of allowing her teenage daughter to be left alone with a predatory music producer. 

Yet the harmonies and singing cradle us, quietly enhancing a tale that is at once timely and timeless. Deftly chosen songs (You can see it all come together during a rendition of Nat King Cole’s ‘When I Fall In Love’) put us right there in the moment.

Even so, it’s hard to find a critical language to account for the delicacy and intimacy of this play. This is an emotionally piercing and beautifully understated tale of family estrangement and loss.

What a pleasure.

‘The Hills of California’ runs until 15 June, Harold Pinter Theatre, London. haroldpintertheatre.co.uk

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Top 5 shows of 2023 (according to me) 🎭

Hiya,

It’s top five time of year again – the shows that have made me laugh, cry, gasp, shudder. I have to say, it has been total chaos.

Yes: 2023 was a horror show. The planet is currently playing host to countless alarming crises. No wonder Mrs Doubtfire Musical is so popular.

Before we proceed, though, a recap of shows that should never have been staged.

Ah, Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear, starring Kenneth Branagh, directed by Kenneth Branagh, cheap and cheerless ABBA comedy The Way Old Friends Do, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James in Penelope Skinner’s joy-sucking play Lyonesse. A doomed Michael Ball in feeble Aspects of Love. Finally, Here We Are (NY) – the final (unfinished) Sondheim musical — all of them uniquely terrible.

Harsh, I admit, but I can confirm that, they were painfully dreadful.

Actually, people do tell you to write down your feelings in a journal, mine just happens to be public. I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.

And so on to my Top 5 Shows of 2023:

  1. Sunset Blvd, West End

In a good year for musicals, (I also loved Secret Life of BeesA Strange Loop and Miss Saigon) this Andrew Lloyd Webber show was the musical revival of the year.

Nicole Scherzinger starred in Jamie Lloyd’s quicksilver production that is Broadway bound. Scherzinger has such beauty and strength that she commanded attention.

Ultimately, it was a sleek, dark, glittering Andrew Lloyd Webber remix, the dehumanisation was funny and alluring and a little eerie.

  1. Oliver! Leeds Playhouse

It’s impossible to separate your reaction to a musical from your own history. I watched Oliver! so many times as a child that my absolute shit stepdad destroyed the VHS tape.

Anyway, this was a superb in-the-round regional production of Lionel Bart’s beloved musical. A bold, large-scale and ambitious production. Excellent.

Raw, stirring and deeply affecting, James Brining’s piece was a regional producing theatre delivering a huge Christmas musical a) precisely when their audiences needed it but also b) when the world most needs it.

Steve Furst was a superb Fagin. I sat there smiling and sobbing at the stage, in complete happiness.

  1. August in England, Bush Theatre

22 June 2023 was the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the passengers of the HMT Windrush in the UK. One of the great good fortunes of my 2023 – indeed career – was to to manage WINDRUSH 75; a creative schools project working with Windrush descendants across the North West of England.

Anyway, Lenny Henry made his debut as a playwright with a richly detailed one-man show about the Windrush scandal. Daniel Bailey and Lynette Linton’s powerful production was a blistering indictment of our government’s mistreatment of Windrush generation.

With a stunningly living-room set by Natalie Price, Henry’s part-monologue and part theatre as activism took us on a rollercoaster.

‘Have you seen Theresa May dance? Now that’s a hostile environment,” said August.

It was really funny and tackled all the big issues with a laugh.

  1. Here Lies Love – New York

I loved this imaginative and immersive  Imelda Marcos 90 minute disco musical on Broadway. It was a lot to cram in, but I was awed by the boldness of the conception: the Theatre was divided into four quadrants and the orchestra seats cleared out to make room for a dance floor.

Arielle Jacobs (better known as Jasmine from Broadway’s Aladdin) was simply brilliant as the former First Lady. And the all-Filipino cast breathed new life and feeling into the original source material.

The piece was, for me, concrete, simple, literal, yet it all worked on a metaphorical level, and it bursted with energy.

  1. Motive and the Cue, National Theatre

Sam Mendes and designer ES Devlin reignited Gielgud and Burton’s Broadway Hamlet in Jack Thorne’s beautifully rich play. Bonus was a staggeringly good Mark Gatiss. Johnny Flynn was exquisite, too. 

Thorne has a gift for snappy storytelling, rich dialogue and dry humour that allows him to handle big themes in an engaging way. Which is why this was the best new play of 2023. 

There we have it.

Beyond that, the theatre year broke down into five seemingly unending and increasingly apocalyptic elements.

Rip off ticket prices

Alas, whichever way you slice it, nauseating premium ticket prices are out of control, and are creeping closer to Broadway levels.

For example, next year’s West End revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy Plaza Suite -starring Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick – is shifting £350 tickets.

The intention to make money is generally all too obvious.

Indeed, the cheapest seats, which often have a restricted view, increased by almost 13% this year compared with last.

Furthermore, audiences – broken by industrial action, soaring inflation and a crumbling rail network – are being priced out of the theatre. 

Audience misbehaviour

Just to grind our gears a little more, a recent survey of theatre staff showed many feared for their safety. Incidents reported included physical aggression, threats of violence, sexual harassment, mass brawls, assaults on staff or other members of the audience, racial slurs, inappropriate use of mobile phones, and vandalism. Oh. Right.

Decline of Theatre criticism

The other thing is that, regrettably, there is much less of all arts criticism than there was.

It is not merely the praise of everything in sight — a special problem in itself — that infuriates theatregoers with a brain, but there is also the unaccountable decline in informed writing in favour of #gifted PR nonsense.

Nowadays, the shift from knowledgable writers to those simply in search of free tickets devalues theatre – and audience experience.

Arts in schools

The prioritisation of EBacc subjects (English language and literature, maths, sciences, history, geography and languages) in secondary accountability measures has led to a reduction in the level of teachers of arts subjects, resources, and GCSE and A Level take-up.

There is, too, an ever growing disparity between state and private schools provision of creative education. Colleges, too, that once fostered talent – often from working-class backgrounds – have vanished at an alarming rate – a creative education in the British state sector has essentially been demolished.

Cultural careers 

This year, filled jobs in music, performing and visual arts dropped by a total of 35,000 roles in the space of just under a year, “chilling” government statistics have revealed. 

Occupied positions in the creative sector fell from 311,000 to 276,000 between April 2022 and March 2023. Still, the reality is that only those from certain backgrounds can now embark on a creative career. 

Why does this matter? It’s not, to put it mildly, the immediate problem that really haunts me.

It’s the not too distant future, 10 years from now where only rich people get to make, write about and experience live performance.

And yet, theatre will always endure and thrive because it’s occasionally glorious, beautiful and thrilling but also very, unpredictable.

Good shows make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. 

What were your favourite shows?

Anyway: Happy Christmas everyone. Keep the faith.🎄

A joyous heart always,

Carl W x

Special mentions: The WitchesGuys & DollsPacific OverturesShuckedShirley ValentineCrazy For You. Standing at the Sky’s Edge.

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Cabaret: The Kit Kat Club *in Selfridges, London*

Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ’round.

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound
A buck or a yen
A buck or a pound.
Is all that makes the world go around
That clinking, clanking sound
Can make the world go ’round

Money money money money
Money money money money
Money money money

If you happen to rich
And you feel like a night’s entertainment
You can pay for a gay escapade
If you happen to be rich and alone
And you need a companion
You can ring (ting-a-ling) for the maid
If you happen to be rich
And you find you are left by your lover
And you moan and you groan quite a lot
You can take it on the chin
Call a cab and begin to recover
On your 14-karat yacht! What!?

Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go aroung
Of that we both are sure
On being poor!

Money money money, money money money
Money money money, money money money
Money money money, money money money
Money money money, money money money

When you haven’t any coal in the stove
And you freeze in the winter
And you curse to the wind at your fate
When you haven’t any shoes on your feet
Your coat’s thin as paper
And you look 30 pounds underweight
When you go to get a word of advice
From the fat little pastor
He will tell you to love evermore
But when hunger comes to rap
Rat-a-tat rat-a-tat at the window
(At the window!)
Who’s there? (hunger) oh, hunger!
See how love flies out the door

For, money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world
Money makes the world go ’round
The clinking, clanking sound of
Money money money money
Money money money money.

CABARET: The Kit Kat Club at Selfridges  until 31 December 2023

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Finally Some Good News: Indhu Rubasingham appointed new director of National Theatre

I remember asking Indhu Rubasingham what she wished somebody had told her when she was starting out in theatre. She replied that she wished someone had told her that she had a right to be part of this industry, and that her voice was important. “One of the skillsets that you need is tenacity and to keep going,” she said.

This week, Rubasingham, 53, has been announced as the first woman and first person from an ethnic minority to be appointed director of the National. She will succeed Rufus Norris, who will leave in spring 2025, and joins the organisation as director designate in spring. Important stuff.

Born in Sheffield and with Sri-Lankan heritage, she will be the seventh director since the National was founded by Sir Laurence Olivier in 1963. In the six decades since it was founded, all the artistic directors have been white men. 

“For me, this is the best job in the world,” Rubasingham said of her new appointment, in a statement.

She added: “The National has played an important part in my life – from tentative steps as a teenage theatregoer, to later as a theatre-maker, and to have the opportunity to play a role in its history is an incredible privilege and responsibility.”

Rubasingham landed her first theatre job at the age of 18, when she directed a production of Roy Williams’s Starstruck at The Kiln – then known as the Tricycle Theatre. As artistic director of the Kiln, her credits include The Wife of WillesdenPass OverWhite TeethRed Velvet and Handbagged. She steered the North London theatre through some of the most difficult years in living memory.

The NT may be 60 years old. It remains, however, an enduring, advancing, uncompleted project whose future will be determined by a unique variety of headwinds: by the quality of the team around her, by the perils of the British economy and, not least, by the impending General Election that the country so desperately needs.  

Inevitably, the gig had taken a toll on her predecessors. Peter Hall wrote in his diaries of his suicidal feelings. In his National Service, Richard Eyre, the director from 1987 to 1997, admits to “melancholia, a shrinking of the spirit”, along with, yes, “recurrent thoughts of suicide”. Yikes.

In 2022 Arts Council England, the funding body, slashed the National’s subsidy by 5 percent, to £16.1 million , as part of a drive to reallocate grants to institutions outside London. From next Autumn, the NT will face further budgetary hell when it must start repaying a covid loan worth £19.7 million. 

Rubasingham – who has directed a number of plays at the NT over the past 25 years – was among panellists discussing arts provision in schools as part of The Big Arts and Education Debate that I organised, held at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2018. Industry professionals gathered to discuss the fact that diversity would suffer because of the cuts to arts in schools.

She said at the time: “It’s so frustrating that the creative industries are worth £91.8 billion to the UK economy and [the government] is not valuing them We’re world-class [at the arts], and if we keep going this way, we’re not going to keep the pipeline, we’re not going to be able to get a diversity of voices, in terms of class and race.”

One of the reasons, then, I am thrilled about this landmark appointment is because Indhu cares. She cares about stuff that matters. I believe that she will flourish in this role, because to run the UK’s flagship theatre you must find the opposite of schadenfreude: you must take joy in other people’s successes.

In fact, Indhu is an expert in enabling others to do their best. This is brilliant news – the sort of news about theatre leadership that happens in a country that deserves better, but that no longer expects it.

So, onwards.

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Sunset Blvd

“GREAT stars have great pride…”

For all its bravado, Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevardbook and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is a bitter and queasy production, and the figure of Desmond is its greatest grotesque, a former Pussycat Doll of 47 striving to be 25, surrounded by video images of herself and entranced by her own face on a screen.

First thing is first, Scherzinger cannot act – it does not matter, though: her vocals are world class. 

This is musical theatre as gothic assault and battery, and like the recent sexy Oklahoma! grabs you by the balls from the first moment and never slackens.

Lloyd’s stylish revival opens with Joe Gillis, the narrator (Tom Francis), unzipping himself from a body bag. “I believe in self-denial,” sings Francis in Let’s Have Lunch, the line both a humorous take on his financial status and an acknowledgement of his sense of frustration. 

Desmond appears in just a black slip for most of the show and Soutra Gilmore’s design is dark. 

Crucially, video designers Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom deserve credit for the cinematography, initially distracting, it pays off in that it gives a nod to old Hollywood and the Insta-era. There are big screens and live relay cameras, while both the backstage at the Savoy and in the street. Watchers and watched.

The screen wins, every time.

Meanwhile, at 10086 Sunset Boulevard, in Desmond’s mad mansion, there is always champagne to hand, and enough money to cater to her every whim and to turn Gillis into a kept man. 

“Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount studios,” she declares, discounting film crew on the lot: in Scherzinger’s hands she becomes a victim of her own mania.

The lyrics – bittersweet, sharp and accompanied by a fabulous orchestra – are left to speak for themselves.

David Thaxton as Max Von Mayerling (he is the only one writing her fan letters) is brilliant as Desmond’s fiercely protective servant and former husband. 

Though the musical may be 30 years old, Lloyd’s stripped-down, psychologically focused production forces us to contemplate the cost of needing to be adored – namely, the unquenchable thirst for validation that cultivates beneath a culture of self obsession.

The opening of Act 2 is pulled off to stunning effect. 

Fabian Aloise supplies incisive choreography for the lively ensemble. I really liked the tongue in cheek staging of This Time Next Year. But for traditionalists – which I would mostly class myself – it’s a curiously disengaging experience. (Just don’t expect any of them to smile at the curtain call).

Elsewhere, there is subtlety from Grace Hodgett Young as Betty. The triumph is in showing that the jauntiness is not separate from darker aspects but dependent on them.

There will be those who can’t stand it, I am normally wary of parachuting pop stars and reality stars into musicals, but this version is an almost total triumph. It works.

Every now and then there is too much mugging and self-consciousness, of working too hard on pressing a point, but the detail is unrelenting. Here, Jamie Lloyd demonstrates that he has a sense of humour, which is a relief. 

Norma Desmond still causes excitement when she enters the soundstage. After all, she is big – it’s the pictures that got small. This is a revival with razor sharp clarity and passion.

Sunset Boulevard runs at Savoy theatre, London, until 6 January 2024


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God, Lyonesse

The title of Penelope Skinner’s play refers to a mythical lost kingdom in Cornwall buried under the sea. Yet the themes are wide-ranging: #MeToo, cancel culture, the oppression of women and more.

Lily James

I’d have had a lot less room to moan, though, if it had a couple of 3D characters and just one moment of tension to fill the West End in these bleak winter months. 

The cast look like they’ve been forced into positions by a cattle prod and would welcome the sweet release of a stun gun rather than endure one more second of this.

Speaking to the Guardian, Skinner, who shot to fame in 2011 when The Village Bike opened at the Royal Court, said she began writing Lyonesse in 2019 and ended up with a first script that was four hours long and ‘a little crazy’, in her own words.

‘It was not a play that anyone would want to watch,’ she admitted, before adding she went back to the drawing board to rewrite the whole thing. The only element she retained was Scott-Thomas’s character Elaine.

It’s mostly dreadful, in fact, and lacks even enough skill and subtlety to pace itself. 

The plot? Kate (Lily James) is an ambitious film executive and high achieving north London mother sent to draw Elaine’s life story out of her to re-fashion it for a film. But she is misunderstood by her husband (James Corrigan); considered irrational for abandoning her child; and humiliated; driven to melancholia spending time in the Cornish dump. She breezes through most of this.

Kristin Scott Thomas

Early on, Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a stand-up monologue that culminates in her jumping around to Ultra Nate’s You’re Free with her lesbian poet neighbour Chris (Sara Powell).

I want to be specific about my grounds, because so many people – and male reviewers especially – have been falling back on narrow or simply savage criticisms of virtue signalling. Lyonesse is short on characters, detail, activity, proper dialogue, even music.

Alas, it would be easy to be able to say that Ian Rickson’s 3-hour production of Lyonesse is bad strictly on formal and technical grounds, but that would, I think, be fundamentally a lie. It is very poor technically but that’s not all that makes it bad.

The play is full of bits of dialogue that have lost what they coupled with, character dynamics that have become rambling, scenes that trickle off. And I am certain it would be 20 minutes shorter if Scott Thomas had a grasp of irony and natural timing for comedy.

Despite all the activity, or perhaps because of it, the main characters are rather flat. Like many of us, it tries to be a success and unpack the implications of patriarchy and inevitably fails on both counts. This a play so obviously engineered that you can’t help seeing its form, maybe the writing accounted for the quality as much as the directing did.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James

“It is time for me to step into the light,” Elaine (Kristin Scott Thomas) announces, a former star actress who disappeared without trace three decades previously.

In the most ludicrous single sequence, James plays a scene of comic female incompetence; she’s unable to light a house fire – that would be a historical low point on the Harold Pinter stage if the character didn’t later accidentally do it in an out of pace slapstick sequence. 

For me, the real kicker arrives, though, in Act 2, which was rushed, confused, and barely raised a laugh, it is difficult to know why it is so badly structured and edited. 

Elsewhere, alpha female boss Sue (Doon Mackichan) whose company specialises in “female driven narratives”, forgot her lines (it happens) the line was “Do you know what I think?”. 

Mackichan yelled frantically off stage: “Yes, Janine?” as if we were supposed to think her office door had been knocked on. 

The off-stage prompt came “do you know what I think?” this was Doon’s line.

Unfortunately, Doon has had to withdraw from Lyonesse due to a ‘private family matter.’

Doon Mackichan and Lily James

Do you know what I think?

New writing needs development, it needs space and it needs investment. Why is it 3 hours? Why are there stuffed parrots? Why is the set so lame? Why did nobody in dramaturgy intervene? Why demonise the entire male sex? 

This could have been brilliant. 

Still, as far as bold new writing on a West End stage, though? Lyonesse makes for lousy viewing.

Lyonesse plays at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 23 December

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Free Your Mind at Aviva Studios

THE world is in chaos, the Holy Land is in crisis, theatres across the country are being forced to close as crumbling concrete is found in their infrastructure.

How, then, will Manchester’s £240m cultural centre entertain us during this bedlam and ease our worried minds?

With the world premiere of Danny Boyle’s Free Your Mind, a hip-hop dance promenade version of the iconic film The Matrix, obviously. 

We are living in a simulation, but not in the way you might think. In his Republic, Plato suggests that something can be tangible and unreal, if it purports to be something it is not (as, for example, a statue does). 

Sometimes you have to let go of clarity.

Actually, if you were suspicious of all this new technology, The Matrix served as a cautionary tale about our devices overpowering our lives. 

Anyway, in June, the Manchester venue was renamed after the insurance company who – amid soaring construction costs – bought the naming rights for £35 million. 

At 13,350 square metres in size, the building has massive, flexible spaces that can be configured by moving walls to fit any size of performance. Impressive.

Boyle’s Matrix collaboration with hip-hop dance company Boy Blue, designer Es Devlin and writer Sabrina Mahfouz is certainly impressive. 

Sure, it’s prescient; all of us consumers placidly sucking up the trance-inducing pap from the corporate-political complex of the state. 

“Should we be worried that machines could think?” asks a spooky avatar of mathematician Alan Turing, that visual effects company Union VFX created from a photograph. But never once does any of it feel felt or earned; it’s all surface and no depth, a marketing person’s fantasy, not an authentic work.

During the interval volunteer (we’ll come back to these later) white rabbit-headed figures danced with the 1,600 audience members. Warehouse workers marshal us. It’s as much a part of the storytelling as safety measures, I think.

Part two, in the Warehouse, is more startling, with Devlin’s set guiding us through the occasion. London Fashion week on acid. We stand by an enormous catwalk. Narrow screens slide above our heads with a montage of Manchester’s history —millworkers, soaps, references to Joy Division — it becomes overwhelming. Keep your nerve.

Throughout, it looks spectacular. Boyle et al conjure scene after striking scene, their cast serve this material superbly, with miracles of poise and expertise. Their movement becomes part of the disturbing current of the evening.

Most effective, however, is the use of sound and music. Washed along on the surges and throbs of Sandy and composer Michael “Mikey J” Asante, pounding score allows ensemble members to hold our attention with their physicality. They are creators of distilled moments, all of which remorselessly powers the action along.

All the dancers (50, with 28 recruited from in and around Manchester) perform with precision and significant style. They outshine the flashy pyrotechnics, but even they can’t bring this concept to proper life. Yet Boyle is an astute man of the culture, and the second half becomes mesmerising as he starts to utilise the awesome scale of the Warehouse, this space is his canvas.

The grit in this oyster, however, is on the back page of the programme: “This group of Manchester residents have been an integral part of ‘Free Your Mind’, and we thank them for their time, effort, and creativity.’

Goodness me, no. 

This flies in the face of the show’s commentary on modern capitalism: a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Sort it out, please, John McGrath. 

Aviva Studios – four years late and costing more than double the original budget – can crow all it likes in public, then, about the 230,000 people that have already visited the venue since it opened in Summer 2023 — but if truly wants to ‘inspire creativity’ and ‘nurture careers in the arts’ then it should be paying people for their work. They are people who are providing the value so why are they at the bottom of the heap when it comes to getting paid?

The Wachowskis’ 1999 film anticipated – and changed – the contemporary world that we’re trapped in today. And now these are some of the worst of times – but they are also a perfect time for cultural organisations and, indeed, all of us to at least attempt to be better and more fairer, equitable versions of ourselves.

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I Went Along To Stephen Sondheim’s Final Musical: Here We Are

A gutsy posthumous musical from the greatest musical composer of all time doesn’t imbue confidence but Here We Are is a reminder of a theatre genius.

Here We Are (originally titled Square One) -becomes the third major Sondheim production running in New York City, alongside Broadway’s Sweeney Todd, and Merrily We Roll Along.

Sondheim said days before his death in 2021 that he did not know when it would be finished, he had written songs for the first act but was struggling with the second. “I’m a procrastinator… I need a collaborator who pushes me, who gets impatient.”

Here We Are – the final Sondheim Musical – is directed by Joe Mantello, and based on two films by Spanish director Luis Buñuel — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, this show is written with the playwright David Ives. Act 1 is Discreet Charm, while Act 2 is Angel.

As for the wider backdrop, in Sondheim’s last interview, he stated that this show had a “so-called plot” in which “the first act is a group of people trying to find a place to have dinner, and they run into all kinds of strange and surreal things, and in the second act, they find a place to have dinner, but they can’t get out.”

Then again, it’s hard to work out what’s actually going on here. For instance, I read in January that producer Cameron Mackintosh said that the show was incomplete and only “50 or 60 per cent there.”

Cam Mack continued: “I think he wanted me to reinforce his view as to whether or not he was going to complete it. Because of the amount of energy it would have taken.”

Hm. Of course, the most difficult thing about making posthumous musicals is that the progress of the artist is frozen in time. No matter what decisions others make, they can only approximate the artist’s will.

So, is Here We Are any good?

Well, it takes aim at obvious targets, and makes a muddle of hitting them, in which self-absorbed characters are tortured by a wicked cosmos, and permission to laugh is never clearly granted. It’s the performances that make Here We Are a worthwhile, fitting postscript to Sondheim’s legacy.

In fact, everything of interest happens in the first act. The book states familiar truths in the most confrontational of ways; an Eat The Rich satire.

The plot: a group of people attempt to find a place to have dinner. Later, they do have dinner but cannot get out of the room. We are presented with American versions of the French bourgeoisie, this show is brilliantly lit by Natasha Katz: the set shimmered.

And, oh, the thrill of minimal choreography that is exact, from the reset of each attempt to have dinner, to the intimate chemistry between two angst-ridden young lovers. 

Yes, the fantastic cast including David Hyde Pierce, Tracie Bennett, and Bobby Cannavale try their best, but the book’s insistent conceptual droning overtakes them. There are no songs in Act 2.

In a memorable moment of fourth wall-breaking, a horny soldier, played by Jin Ha, sings a love song that is interrupted halfway through with a generic show-stop. 

House lights go up: 

It’s the end of the world

There is nothing but you 

I’ve been looking for love all my life 

I’ve got further to go

I want only to be with you, live with you, die with you

That much I know

Then my mother came in 

I saw that her shirt was stuffed, and the sky was cloth, and the clouds were just painted and the food was just rubber

Then a curtain went up and I realised we were all in a play, on a stage, in a theatre

Here We Are, then, grants these people their idle wishes.

Ultimately, though, this project is a ghostly reminder of Sondheim’s perfectionism. And that’s just it: however much you may enjoy this show, it’s hard to completely accept it as a true Stephen Sondheim musical without his final approval.

As a lyricist, Sondheim followed three rules: content dictates form, less is more, God is in the details. This show all sounds pleasantly like an echo of good Sondheim.

A priest – played with excellent comic timing by Hyde Pierce sings: 

Do any of you think about the meaning of life? Any of you

God. Death. Anyone for purgatory? 

In the middle of mass, all I think is my miter should be tighter

I mean, why a bishop? Why not an analyst? 

Why not a bartender, I could be anything

Don’t get me wrong

I love the church and I don’t only mean the clothes

I mean the statues and the windows

And the rows of yearning people and the special par-king

And then of course there’s God

Don’t get me wrong

I love my dog, though, I don’t always understand him

Or agree 

Do we really need the droughts and the floods

And the plagues. And the earthquakes. And the universal suff’ring?

This was funny.

It’s an ambitious musical that works hard to achieve a lean and contemporary look. But characters that we feel indifferent to turns the plot into a guessing game are not substitutes for suspense.

In the end, its existence with a handful of motifs that stand up to Sondheim’s peerless oeuvre, a satire of the super rich, a musical that attempts to illustrate the dehumanising essence of free-market capitalism, via one-liners and mystical virtues. 

Yet I kept waiting for Here We Are to get started — to get into something. I was still waiting when it was over and I was back out on the street. 

What I am describing sounds like a chore. And by Sondheim peerless standards it mostly is. But it’s a surprisingly absorbing musical, just the same.

Steve has his epitaph now. God is in the details.

 Here We Are runs at The Shed, NYC until January 7, 2024.

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We need to talk about arts education

Theatre is my life. 

I was first in the family to go to university, in receipt of free school meals. Am working class, and I have a learning disability. 

Yet here I am.

Creative subjects seemed to be the only area I thrived on as a learner.

Despite repeated warnings, access to a creative curriculum – music, art and drama  remains out of reach for the vast majority of children from less privileged backgrounds.

Indeed, the country of Shakespeare no longer recognises drama as a key subject.

Here are some comments from a few teachers that I spoke to recently about the creative subjects disappearing by stealth from our state schools: 

‘My college has cut A level dance film music and drama entirely.’

‘Our college has cut BTEC music, a combination of factors of low recruitment and knock on of low uptake GCSE.’

‘My sons homework is only ever marked on spelling, algebra and grammar – not creativity.’

‘They (the government) brought in EBACC – which excludes the arts, which all but eliminates them. The schools struggle to find the time to teach the arts. ’

“I work in a special school and have been pressured to cut drama completely from the classroom – my manager wants evidence of ‘progressive writing and worksheets’ from classes.” 

“My secondary school in Morecambe has no music in KS3 and KS4 and no music teachers employed for the first time in my 30 years teaching in this school. It’s a tragedy.” 

“My secondary school still tries to offer drama GCSE and music but due to pressure students in year 11 and 13 were banned from taking part in school productions.” 

“I’m a secondary teacher, drama lessons have reduced from 50 minutes a week to an hour a fortnight.”

So, what can arts in schools offer children and young people from widening disadvantaged backgrounds?

As Head of Creative Communities at the Dukes, Lancaster; Lancashire’s only producing theatre, I am responsible for participatory work with brilliant diverse communities of all ages and abilities. 

I see on a daily basis the impact that creative learning has on people’s lives. Transferable skills, improved confidence, better health and improved wellbeing. The tangible evidence is abundant.

All of our creative engagement work is affordable, well-resourced, sustainably funded and / or have non-means tested bursaries. It’s a rewarding challenge. 

Politically, the current education secretary – a role that has been held by 10 different people since the Conservatives assumed power in 2010 has also been held by five different people since July last year alone. And the department Culture, Media and Sport is on the eleventh culture secretary in the space of ten years.

This is something that matters a great deal to me and I will not shut up about it.

Since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010, the number of GCSEs taken in arts subjects has declined by 40 per cent. Yet, judged by any rational criteria, removing arts subjects from the national curriculum makes no sense at all.

Yet the people who have been making these policies in government have seen and felt the massive advantages that can bring.

As an example of our “viability”, in tourism surveys, ‘Theatre’ is ranked second only to ‘Heritage’ as the reason quoted for international tourists choosing to visit the UK. Theatre – worth £7 billion to the UK economy – drives inward investment, generates intellectual property that is licensed all over the world, and, as noted by the Chancellor, plays a major role Britain’s soft power.

In fact, during a recent speech, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, noted that the cultural industries had grown at twice the rate of the UK’s economy over the last decade stating they have made the UK the world’s largest exporter of unscripted TV formats and help give us a top three spot in the Portland Soft Power index.”

Meanwhile, schools are handing out clothing and food to children amid the cost of living crisis, while teachers report deteriorating hygiene among pupils as families cut back on brushing teeth, showering and even flushing the toilet.

The arts isn’t draining subsidy from the state, it is the driver of all national growth, generating tax revenue far greater than the investment it receives in return. What value do we put on that?

This summer 28.4% of GCSE exams were graded 7-9 in London, compared with 18.6% in the North West. A level results showed a similar picture. While in London 30% of A-level grades were A or A* (up from 26.9% in 2019), in the North West it was 24%. It highlights a worrying attainment gap that needs urgently addressing. 

Whatever happened to Levelling Up? 

Needless to say, teacher numbers are plummeting, hours are shrinking, the percentage of uptake from students to take GSCE and A’Level arts courses are down by over a 60% since 2010 and are plummeting further still.

Artists and teachers have long railed against the English baccalaureate, the system introduced without consultation under the former education secretary Michael Gove in 2010. The Ebacc excludes all arts subjects. It is also the bedrock on which a school’s Progress 8 score is based, which determines its place in performance tables. This gives schools an incentive to focus on “core” subjects – English, maths and sciences.

Of course, funding squeezes for schools, combined with the philosophical damage of arts no longer being recognised as a core subject on the secondary school curriculum, as of 2014.
The number of drama teachers in state-funded secondary schools in England has also fallen by 22% since 2011, and there has been a 15% decline in the number of music teachers and a 12% decline in the number of art and design teachers over the same period.

All this is seriously damaging the future of many young people in this country.

In fact, there is a dangerous disparity emerging between the state and the private sector in terms of provision for cultural education.

To paraphrase actor Sir Mark Rylance who used the bio of the programme for the recent West End production of Jerusalem to criticise cuts to arts education: 

“If, in modern day England, an institution like Eton deems drama important enough to have two theatres, why are we allowing our government to cut arts education from the life of the rest of our young people and our hard-pressed teachers,”

The next Sir Mark Rylance or Dame Floella Benjamin are out in Morecambe Bay Primary, I’m sure.

Sadly, young people in the most disadvantaged areas are least likely to be able to access cultural activity through school, reinforcing cycles of exclusion and deprivation.

In a recent report by the Cultural Learning Alliance titled ‘The Arts in Schools: Foundations For The Future’ a re-evaluation of the way arts subjects are assessed in schools is among the recommendations, also recommends every child has access to a minimum of four hours of arts education per week is called for as part of a rethink of the state education sector.

There is something too about time, and the problem with the arts being ‘bell-bound’, as is illustrated by the image below which describes a high-functioning classroom, and the flexibility that the arts require in terms of timetabling. The same length of lesson does not work for every discipline.

Furthermore, it is estimated that 4.3 million children and young people in the UK are growing up in poverty.

The Children’s Society reports that there are approximately 800,000 young carers in the UK, and that 39% have said that nobody in their school is aware of their caring responsibilities. The Sutton Trust has published data on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on university students now, and there are predictions of a drop out crisis ahead.

In schools, headteachers are reporting that this crisis is resulting in increasing numbers of vulnerable pupils becoming disengaged and being groomed by gangs to run drugs from one city to other parts of the country, with the director of Diversify, a charity based in Rotherham, reporting that with children’s families unable to afford school meals ‘they are outside, hungry and cold. And in the context of schools having to cut back on the number of staff on playground duty due to financial pressures, or struggling to recruit and retain pastoral and support staff, due to low pay, it’s bleak.

I’d also like to clear up a few things. 

Firstly, standstill funding is a real terms cut; it is a corrosive form of zero-sum vandalism.

And second, community engagement work is not a loss leader, it’s an investment in a brighter future where new conversations, new academics, new voices and new audiences can meet. 

Because you can throw money at trying to entice new or different groups to your venue, but why should they come unless they see themselves truly reflected on stage and in every aspect of a theatre’s work? 

My wish is that we wake up to the fact that diversity – in all forms – age, gender, race, class – has real value: it doesn’t just ensure survival, it can genuinely invigorate organisations and be a spur to creativity and new ways of thinking.

What are the unmet needs of our communities and audiences?

It’s only by constantly challenging those assumptions, that we will ever get to a stage when the demographics of the stories that play out on our stages, match the demographics of the country.

These policies are restricting the arts to a privileged few. It’s time for a change.

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Edinburgh Fringe: Gush / Attachment: The Leech Show / Self Raising

There is usually a moment in a Fringe show, often after the first few minutes, when you start to relax. You are sure that you have a grip on it; all fear about making sense of things disappears.

It’s not so in Abby Vicky-Russell’s knotty but moving Gush, a photo of Prince Andrew looms Stage right. Pre-show, – a pulsing soundtrack loops: GUSH – GUSH GUSH – GUSH GUSH.

Then, a figure in a charcoal fluffy body suit and pink bob wig appears. Finally, I thought: showbiz!

Then it all stops.

Vicky-Russell re-enters playing Neil, a plumber from Yorkshire, who has been sent in to fix a leak on the set of the show that we are watching. Her physical comedy is top notch. 

Elsewhere, the resulting part stand up routine, part confessional play within a play gives the character Neil a mundane shimmer, and there are overtones of Victoria Wood in an expertly plotted visual gag involving a quiche and loads of table salt. Chaos. 

But, if anything, that overture understates the level of theatre sorcery going on here: Behind all this nonsense, a real-life, gruesomely compelling story emerges through a confessional monologue about abuse and father-daughter pain.

In any case, Gush, at Assembly packs some emotional punches and is an astonishingly unguarded piece – with a lot of potential – about the cruelties of abuse. 

Elsewhere, at Greenside I caught Attachment: The Leech Show – it’s ostensibly a slapstick piece about influential critic, Bob the Leech.

But only a very few of the gags get their laughs-and when slapstick goes flat, the effect is clunky.

This young company turn the stage into a zestful playground and give it all they have got, though the running gag makes it hard to conjure suspense – are critics really frustrated artists who never like anything? 

Yet in the final few minutes when Bob dies, the company come to the realisation that critics are just as vital to the industry as the artists that they observe.

This timely show strikes me as an enduring cult hit in the making.

Thirteen shows are deaf-led at Fringe this year, and one of those is Jenny Sealey’s lovely Self-Raising at Pleasance Dome.

“Secrets are easier to tell strangers. I work in theatre, that’s what we do.”

Well, quite.

This is an autobiographical play from disability-led company Graeae – alongside her “terp” (sign-language interpreter) where three generations of the Sealey family are unpacked.

Sealey set out to adapt Anne Fine’s book Flour Babies before real life took hold and she changed course. Opportunity and social mobility are underlying themes.

The narration is accompanied by captions, sign language and audio description, along with family pictures, video and voiceovers from Sealey’s son, Jonah. 

This show is beautifully put together, from the cunningly simple design by Anisha Field where three cupboards neatly double as the family kitchen and a darkroom and where family photos – and secrets are developed, to the simple lighting design by Emma Chapman.

There is almost too much here to be squeezed into the brief running time, but director Lee Lyford keeps things motoring.

Sealey and her co-writer Mike Kenny have delivered a charming story that is funny, graceful and fully accessible. Alas, it’s the subject rather than the staging that moves the emotions.