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For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy writer and Director Ryan Calais Cameron’s vision is bold and unapologetic, weaving together a tapestry of vignettes that oscillate between introspection and explosive catharsis. 

Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1976 work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Calais Cameron’s play opens with six young men: Tobi King Bakare, Shakeel Haakim making his professional debut, Fela Lufadeju, Albert Magashi, Mohammed Mansaray and Posi Morakinyo. 

This is a memorable piece about Black masculinity and Black life in Britain, the wounds and crises of class conditioned by the background weather of race and identity. The nature of manhood is one of Mr. Calais Cameron’s chief concerns.

It’s an entirely unique vision and wrongfoots us from the start. Exhilarating and emotionally rich exploration of masculinity, mental health and the six men’s relationship with black history. The production’s emotional intensity is all the greater for the fierce restraint that the actors—and the characters—display.

One is passed over by the girls playing kiss-chase. Another is subjected to a “routine check” by police in Hackney. There’s the one who accuses his educated friend of being “whitewashed” as he tries to fit in. This was exciting, unnerving, bristling with youth and volume. 

The crucial thing is that this play – now on its second West End run – is urging people to look hard at these profound issues around human behaviour, and really think about what makes people who they are. 

Here, too, the entire ensemble’s acting is elegant, emotional, and superb in all its impacted pain and ongoing struggles. The combination of artistry and emotional directness in this play is overwhelming to me.

Anna Reid’s fluorescent playground set and costume design is terrific. The music — hip-hop, R&B, astute classical sound design and composition by Nicola T. Chang — is both surprising and perfect. 

Lighting wise, Rory Beaton paints the stage not in the gritty, neorealist tones expected of such streetwise stories, but with the rich textures and saturated colours of a waking dream that uniquely mixes music, movement, storytelling, and verse.

Overall, this is a provocative piece of theatre that delves deep into the complexities of the black male experience. With raw honesty and poetic flair, the production navigates themes of identity, mental health, and systemic oppression with an unflinching gaze. 

Red Pitch, a piece about three Black teenagers first seen at the Bush, is running up the road at the new Soho Place theatre. Watching this at the Garrick Theatre I noticed how racially and socially mixed the audience was compared with nearly every other West End show. 

But we’re starved of these narratives in the West End and Calais Cameron’s raw drama showcases why they are so hugely important.

Considering this started life at the 80-seater New Diorama in 2021, it’s a stunning achievement but also proves theatre can flourish on the small scale, by commissioning fresh, interesting work that doesn’t rely on expensive production.

Late to the party, I know. Alas, I doubt that I will see a better play in the West End this year.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is at the Garrick theatre, London until 4 May

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Faith Healer

Faith Healer at Lyric Hammersmith is a poignant exploration of faith, deception, and the blurred lines between reality and illusion. Rachel O’Riordan’s immaculate production transcends the stage to deliver an emotionally stirring evening, both competently staged and beautifully spoken.

A lost showbusiness world is conjured through stirring monologues, hauntingly delivered by Declan Conlon, Justine Mitchell and Nick Holder

Thematically, Faith Healer grapples with weighty existential questions, exploring the knotty nature of faith, the limits of human empathy, and the search for meaning. Brian Friel’s bleak 1979 play unfolds through four simmering monologues delivered by three characters: Frank, the travelling faith healer; his shellshocked wife (or mistress), Grace; and his chatty manager, Teddy. (The only thing that all three characters agree on is what route they took into Ireland).

What to make of Frank? On good nights, he is a saviour. On bad nights, he’s a fraud.

At the heart of this luminescent production is the exceptional cast, who breathe life into Friel’s richly drawn characters. “As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me,” Declan Conlon’s Hardy says, warm, lilting, direct, eyes widening theatrically at that word ‘possessed’. Grace, played with boozy raw emotion by Justine Mitchell, captures the heartache and resilience of a woman grappling with love and loss. And Teddy, brought brilliantly to vaudevillian life with wit by an excellent cockney ‘dear heart’-ing Nick Holder.

It’s all about the story that demands the total attention of the audience and gets the performance of their lives from the actors. Elsewhere, Grace allows herself to let in certain memories of Frank, “like a patient returning to solids”.

Colin Richmond’s smoky cracked earth set and costume design and evocative lighting by Paul Keogan creates an atmosphere of introspection, the non-linear structure of the play is handled with attention to detail, with each overlapping monologue building to create a complex narrative. A test of our faith in what we see and hear.


Through the lens of Frank’s dubious gift and the characters’ fractured relationships, the play invites us to ponder the ways in which we construct our own realities and the lengths we will go to hold onto our beliefs. The riveting play struck me as a masterpiece: one in which Friel wrestles with the artist’s dependence on the unpredictability of inspiration, and at its deepest level the play seems to be exploring the mystery of creativity itself, as if Friel were attempting to come to terms with his own unreliable genius.

While I have your attention, I want to pick up on Kate Kellaway’s Guardian review of Faith Healer

“Nick Holder is a terrific comic turn as Teddy, Frank’s cockney manager. He is a drab, drunk, Humpty Dumpty of a man in a slovenly waistcoat, but never more than a belly laugh away from pathos.”

The thing that really irked me was Kellaway cruelly comparing a performer to ‘Humpty Dumpty’. 

Yeah, wow. I think an apology is in order, Kate. 

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Opening Night

THE joy and the pain of writing about theatre is that, after a while, you realise you’ve seen almost everything theatre has to offer.

Please forgive any sense of over-indulgence, exaggeration or deja-vu that accompanies the following announcement, but I think I may just have watched the best worst musical of all time.

“I’ve been in the theatre all my life and I still don’t know anything about it,” cries one character. Well, quite.

After a few minutes of Opening Night, I began to get that depressed feeling, and, after a half hour, felt rather offended. 

In the West End, cynicism and pessimism are natural bedfellows. Do we really need another piece of musical theatre about sad actresses?

The show includes an immersive segment in which Sheridan Smith’s character, Myrtle, collapses in a drunken state outside the stage door with the scenes projected onto screens inside.

There’s so much going on – flashbacks and crosscutting – that you’re never allowed any peace. Why? To keep you from getting bored. It succeeds in that, but the effect is nerve jangling.

Something odd happened during Opening Night, which is based on the 1977 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright, on Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

One minute the star Smith was quietly contemplating how to ‘make magic out of tragic’.

The next, a dubstep backing track had kicked in and Smith was murdering ghost girl Nancy (Shira Haas), – who doesn’t exist – with a lamp. 

At which point — and I make no apology for this reaction — I exploded, with laughter, not just because the scene itself was unintentionally very funny, but I’d also noticed the entire row in front of me had left during the interval. 

Admittedly, it could’ve been even more mortifying if Cameron Mackintosh had popped out from behind one of the doors and joined in on backing vocals.

You could also describe it as “so bad it’s good”, but that would underestimate the scale of this one massively. 

I hated act 1. I left the Theatre delirious. 

Van Hove sets up promising situations and then the pay offs are out of step. The show is full of bits of dialogue that have lost what they connected with, character relations that have become disjointed, scenes that dribble off, so after the first 30 minutes or so the production loses momentum.

In the story, Myrtle, played by Smith, is having a nervous breakdown after the death of one of her fans, the very image of her younger self.

Various men letch over her. And so, it continues. A visual atrocity with an unnerving use of creepy physical intimacy, and a tired use of video footage. 

And, no, technically it’s not actually a musical, it’s a very po-faced play with jazzy music. Smith’s work doesn’t hold together here, but how could it? 

Opening Night is so epically, wonderfully, bloody awful it’s occasionally brilliant. 

Still, the cast are seriously talented, and they saw it right through to the bitter end and then, like trained psychopaths, carried on the curtain call as if nothing untoward had happened, cheerfully clapping along with no coordination and telling us: “You gotta make magic out of tragic.” 

This is clearly not just my opinion. Because I want to make it clear I am laughing at this show, not with it. One can have a fairly good time laughing at Act 2, but it doesn’t sit too well as a joke because the people on stage are being humiliated and underused. (I didn’t really enjoy seeing Sheridan Smith making a fool of herself)

The 16 credited producers clearly haven’t noticed what they’re doing, though, as they’ve spent the preview period chopping and changing this from an incoherent shambles into a dystopian Funny Girl

Without Smith the piece is extinct.

Someone really should’ve had a word here and said: “Ivo, darling, loved your A Little Life, but Sunset Boulevard did all this with more style.” But they didn’t.

This is not to deny that the actors do a good job. I thought Hadley Fraser tried his best. 

Yet, for all its skill, I found myself admiring Jan Versweyveld’s lighting more than relishing drama.

But look, when Van Hove goes wrong, he goes laboriously, painfully wrong.

Anyway, Opening Night is, at least itself: and has become more like a weird cross between Zorro – The Musical and Merrily We Roll Along — with zero joy or musicality. 2.5 wretched hours of dissonant play-within-the-play madness. 

Opening Night is at the Gielgud theatre, London, until 27 July

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Olivier Awards predictions 2024: who will win, who should win

Is Sunset Boulevard a lock across the board? Does Little Big Things have a chance?

Sheridan Smith, Nicole Scherzinger, Sarah Snook, James Norton and Andrew Scott are among the big names whose West End work during the past 12 months has today won them Olivier nominations.

Sunset Boulevard, starring Scherzinger, leads the pack with 11 nominations for Jamie Lloyd’s radical revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.

No big surprises here this year, folks: it’s been an exceptional year for shows, from the excellent A Strange Loop to the wonderful Sondheim Old Friends concert. 

Yet the vast majority of the awards class show up dutifully while claiming to loathe it. 

Before we go on, 100% of the nominees for the Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director are men Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin for Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Rupert Goold for Dear England, Jamie Lloyd for Sunset Boulevard and Sam Mendes for The Motive & The Cue

Yup, a recent ‘The Women in Theatre survey’found that only 6% of respondents believe there has been an increase in opportunities for women in the sector since a previous survey in 2021.

Alas, despite the dominance of men in every profession in theatre, there seems to be no strategy to address it. 

Still, bravo to Rufus Norris for The National Theatre’s 15 nominations in total, including three of the four best new play nods for The Motive and the Cue, Till The Stars Come Down and Dear England.

But I have to say that Jamie Lloyd’s richly powerful and unashamedly alien melodrama Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Scott’s one-man Vanya and the brilliant Operation Mincemeat gets my support — and I suspect that of Olivier Award voters as well.

Certainly, I am delighted that Haydn Gwynne has been posthumously nominated for her role in When Winston Went To War With The Wireless at Donmar Warehouse, too. 

Anyway, here are my predictions for the biggest night in British Theatre.

The Olivier Awards 2024 with Mastercard will be on April 14 at the Royal Albert Hall.

Full list of nominations (plus who will win, who should win)

Noël Coward Award for Best New Entertainment or Comedy Play

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist by Dario Fo & Franca Rame, adapted by Tom Basden at the Lyric Hammersmith & Theatre Royal Haymarket

Should win: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim at the Gielgud Theatre

Will win: Stranger Things: The First Shadow by Kate Trefry at the Phoenix Theatre

Vardy V Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial, adapted by Liv Hennessy at the Ambassadors Theatre

Best Family Show

Bluey’s Big Play by Joe Brumm at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall

Dinosaur World Live by Derek Bond at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Should win: The House With Chicken Legs, book by Sophie Anderson, adapted by Oliver Lansley at

Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall

Will win: The Smeds And The Smoos, book by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, adapted by Tall

Stories at the Lyric Theatre

Gillian Lynne Award for Best Theatre Choreographer

Will win: Fabian Aloise for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Ellen Kane & Hannes Langolf for Dear England at  the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Arlene Phillips with James Cousins for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Mark Smith for The Little Big Things at @sohoplace

Should win: Susan Stroman for Crazy For You at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Mithridate Award for Best Costume Design

Bunny Christie & Deborah Andrews for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Ryan Dawson Laight for La Cage Aux Folles at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Should win / will win: Hugh Durrant for Peter Pan at The London Palladium

Marg Horwell for The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Cunard Best Revival

The Effect by Lucy Prebble at the National Theatre – Lyttelton

Macbeth by William Shakespeare at the Donmar Warehouse

Should win: Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Will win: Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Simon Stephens at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Best Musical Revival

Groundhog Day, music & lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Danny Rubin at The Old Vic

Should win: Guys & Dolls, music & lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows at the Bridge Theatre

Hadestown, music, lyrics & book by Anaïs Mitchell at the Lyric Theatre

Will win: Sunset Boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics & book by Don Black & Christopher Hampton at the Savoy Theatre

d&b audiotechnik Award for Best Sound Design

Paul Arditti for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Will win: Dan Balfour & Tom Gibbins for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Adam Fisher for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Should win:Gareth Fry for Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse

Outstanding Musical Contribution

Tom Brady for Musical Supervision & Arrangements and Charlie Rosen for Orchestrations for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Matt Brind for Musical Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations for Just For One Day at The Old Vic

Should win: Steve Sidwell for Orchestrations & Joe Bunker for Musical Direction for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Will win: Alan Williams for Musical Supervision & Musical Direction for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Will Close for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Should win: Paul Hilton for An Enemy Of The People at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Will win: Giles Terera for Clyde’s at the Donmar Warehouse

Luke Thompson for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Zubin Varla for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Lorraine Ashbourne for Till The Stars Come Down at the National Theatre – Dorfman

Priyanga Burford for An Enemy Of The People at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Should win / will win: Haydn Gwynne for When Winston Went To War With The Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse

Gina McKee for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier

Tanya Reynolds for A Mirror at the Almeida Theatre & Trafalgar Theatre

Blue-i Theatre Technology Award for Best Set Design

Will win: Miriam Buether for Set Design & 59 Productions for Video Design for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Should win: Bunny Christie for Set Design for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Es Devlin for Set Design & Ash J Woodward for Video Design for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Soutra Gilmour for Set Design and Nathan Amzi & Joe Ransom for Video Design for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

White Light Award for Best Lighting Design

Jon Clark for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Jon Clark for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Paule Constable for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Should win / Will win: Jack Knowles for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Best Actress in a Supporting Role In a Musical

Should win: Grace Hodgett Young for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Zoë Roberts for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Will win: Amy Trigg for The Little Big Things at @sohoplace

Eleanor Worthington-Cox for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

Best Actor in a Supporting Role In a Musical

Jak Malone for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Cedric Neal for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Should win / Will winDavid Thaxton for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Jack Wolfe for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

TAIT Award for Best New Opera Production

Should win: Blue by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Innocence by the Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House

Picture A Day Like This by the Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House – Linbury Theatre

Will win: The Rhinegold by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Outstanding Achievement in Opera

Antonio Pappano for his role as Musical Director of the Royal Opera House

Should win: Belarus Free Theatre Company for King Stakh’s Wild Hunt at the Barbican Theatre

Will win: Marina Abramović for her concept and design of 7 Deaths Of Maria Callas at the London Coliseum

Best Actor in a Musical

David Cumming for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Should win: Tom Francis for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Daniel Mays for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Will win: Charlie Stemp for Crazy For You at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Best Actress in a Musical

Should win: Natasha Hodgson for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Caissie Levy for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

Will win: Nicole Scherzinger for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Marisha Wallace for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Unusual Rigging Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre

Will win: Blue Mist by Mohamed-Zain Dada at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre

Should win: A Playlist For The Revolution by AJ Yi at the Bush Theatre

Sleepova by Matilda Feyişayo at the Bush Theatre

The Swell by Isley Lynn at the Orange Tree Theatre

The Time Machine: A Comedy by Steven Canny and John Nicholson at the Park Theatre

Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director

Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Rupert Goold for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Will win: Jamie Lloyd for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Should win: Sam Mendes for The Motive And The Cue at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

Best Actress

Should win: Laura Donnelly for The Hills Of California at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Sophie Okonedo for Medea at @sohoplace

Will win: Sarah Jessica Parker for Plaza Suite at the Savoy Theatre

Sheridan Smith for Shirley Valentine at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Sarah Snook for The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Best Actor

Joseph Fiennes for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Mark Gatiss for The Motive And The Cue at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

James Norton for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Should win / Will win: Andrew Scott for Vanya at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

David Tennant for Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse

The Londoner Award for Best New Play

Dear England by James Graham at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

The Hills Of California by Jez Butterworth at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Will win: The Motive And The Cue by Jack Thorne at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

Should win: Till The Stars Come Down by Beth Steel at the National Theatre – Dorfman

Mastercard Best New Musical

The Little Big Things, music by Nick Butcher, lyrics by Nick Butcher & Tom Ling, book by Joe White at @sohoplace

Next To Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey at the Donmar Warehouse

Will win: Operation Mincemeat, music, lyrics & book by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoë Roberts at the Fortune Theatre

Should win: A Strange Loop, music, lyrics & book by Michael R. Jackson at the Barbican Theatre

Is Sunset Boulevard a lock across the board? Does Little Big Things have a chance?
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Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre, London

I tend to think very associatively, so for me the reflexive way of making sense of a lot of theatre things is by using references to other things. (Upon viewing the musical in 2019 I wrote Standing at the Sky’s Edge was a 21st century Blood Brothers (it is), I also said it must transfer to our National Theatre (that it did). 

And when a new blog gets published, I’ve noticed an increasing number of readers saying that they’re saving it to read with a cup of tea or glass of wine. 

So, thanks for reading. 

Anyway, I feel blessed to have seen the debut of Standing at the Sky’s Edge at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre in 2019, before the pandemic. When it was restaged in Sheffield in 2022. At our Royal National Theatre in 2023. 

And, amazingly, witnessing it win two Olivier awards: best new musical and best original score – is something I will never forget. 

But here we are, 5 years on, a lot has happened in the world and the musical finds its home from home at the concrete fortress that is the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

In fact, I can now see that Standing at the Sky’s Edge is what helped me to find a way of writing about theatre that I hoped would be more accessible. 

Uncovering shows that excavate living history and contain work with diverse communities. 

“THAT neon’s been a bastard since day one,” says a workman passing by Sheffield’s Park Hill – Grade 2-listed brutalist council estate. 

“Should’ve torn the whole place down when they had the chance,” says another, looking up. 

“No, life in it yet,” comes the response. 

Indeed.

Here, brutalist blocks overlooking the UK’s ‘steel’ city – recreated with great flair in Ben Stones’ soaring concrete walkways: Sheffield’s Park Hill estate represents nothing less than the ruin of the ideals upon which Britain’s welfare state is based, the raw emotions of which resonates long after you leave the theatre. 

References are made to Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United football teams and resentment at the gentrification; it’s good to see regional theatre being just that – relevant and local, especially now. 

The whole thing packs a hefty punch, both personal and political.

This heartfelt show – directed by Robert Hastie, fuelled by indie crooner Richard Hawley’s folk-rock songs and a brilliant book by Chris Bush – is a continuous theatrical experience rooted in Sheffield that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. 

It refers to itself as “a love letter to Sheffield” and details the lives of three Northern working-class families. There’s inequality, too: generational, social, and regional, between the property haves and have-nots.

And this production may benefit from being a National Theatre co-production with 15 other producers, but it was born through tenacity and public subsidy; outside the M25 and thanks to shrewd partnerships and a world class passionate creative team.

Starting points are more or less three elections / political moments: the 1979 one that brought Thatcher to power, the Brexit referendum and the inevitable levelling-up letdown are the unavoidable background to the stories. 

We start in the 1960s, a home of the newlywed Rose (Rachael Wooding) and steelworker, Harry (Joel Harper Jackson), followed by a Liberian refugee Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele), and finally Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford), a middle-class Londoner dealing with the breakdown of her relationship with Nikki (Lauryn Redding).

I want to say that Rachael Wooding’s power as Rose is astounding… She bites right through the soapy domestic pulp; the finale reprise scene ‘As the Dawn Breaks’ is shattering, and it won’t go away.

Anyway, the great virtue of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (the track featured on Hawley’s 2012 album of the same name) is that it captures both the internal and external struggles individuals face in finding a home. It is also put across by a cast who sing, dance and act with exemplary commitment.

But the pleasure in Bush’s increasingly funny book is in the way that, with designer Stones, they gradually expand the journeys that each family go on. 

Yet, Hastie is playing a subtler game with the subject material, turning the musical into a study of the power of community against the backdrop of industrial decay. 

This musical argues smartly, with practical political sense, that it is not enough simply to build more houses: there must be a plan in which homes are created where there is work. 

The faults can be quickly explained. At almost three hours, the show is too long and loses some momentum particularly in the final quarter. Likewise, the dots connecting the three overlaid narratives occasionally slide. 

If you are a Tory, you will probably find it unsettling.

What is clear, however, is that, this is the most original and important musical in the West End. I hope that audiences get behind it. A first-rate piece of work by a director who’s daring and agile… It’s heaven; alive in a way that West End musicals rarely are.

Park Hill in 1961 … the ‘streets in the sky’ – designed to be wide enough to drive a milk float along. 

In that context, North-south wealth inequality in England is on course to grow, stating the richest 10% hold almost half of all wealth, according to a new report by thinktank IPPR North; a new and widening class divide has been created through systemic neglect.

In fact, the housing crisis in Britain is now so bad that empty high street shops and offices could be converted to homes. 

Anyhow, this week, at the press night I bumped into Richard Hawley.

“Things will get better. Won’t they?” I asked.

“Things will change, pal. As long as we learn from history,” he eloquently said with a fag in his mouth. 

A memo to the Prime Minister and Chancellor ahead of this week’s budget that investment in public services and funding are key to reversing the growing scandalous regional divide and a broken country where nothing really works. 

Later this year we head to the polls, do batten your hatches accordingly. 

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, London until August 2024

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Theatre: are we f***ed?

The UK is in recession – which means the economy has been shrinking for most of the last year. 

Theatre is increasing being preserved for the wealthy, which will disproportionately affect the next generation of theatregoers

There has been a lot of discourse about ticket prices since the £400 tickets for Cock starring Taron Egerton fiasco. 

So let’s start with actor David Harewood: “My wife went to the theatre the other day, it cost her nearly £200 – who could afford that?”

Indeed, Harewood, Rada’s first black President, explained that theatre is at risk of ‘vanishing’ because of soaring costs and needs to be protected. 

Hard to argue with that.

Without wishing to over-egg a pudding that is already 90% meringue, audiences need increased transparency in ticket sales, and protecting from overpriced tickets.

In related news, then, Cameron Mackintosh Ltdrecently saw turnover almost double year on year – to £186 million – as the company reported its first full 12 months of accounts since the pandemic. Still, Mackintosh famously said “Theatre’s excellence comes at a price.”

Some guys have all the luck.

Plaza Suite in the West End, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, is selling “premium” seats at £395 (plus a £3.80 transaction fee!). That’s more than the average weekly rent for a studio flat in Primrose Hill.

Where does this end? Who are the people other than billionaire theatre owners, paid publicists, lapdoggy influencers and ATG staff defending premium prices? Literally nobody.

Increasingly, however, it’s not just me and David Harewood who are alarmed about eye-watering ticket prices.

Last year, Dominic West called West End ticket prices “crazy”.

Ralph Fiennes suggested to BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg that ticket prices are “worryingly high,” in the West End. “We can do it (lower prices),” he said.

David Tennant, recently said some theatre tickets had become “ludicrously” expensive and warned that young people would be deterred from going.

Society of London Theatre co-chief executive Claire Walker responded to Tennant’s criticism highlighting that average ticket prices had decreased when adjusted for inflation. Hmm.

Heck, even Patsy Ferran is uncomfortable with it all: “Theatre should be accessible. If tickets get to a certain price that only a very small amount of people can have access, it gets to be problematic… Prices have reached a point that is shocking to me, but maybe I should just get used to it.”

And it was unarguably powerful to hear Andrew Scott say seats costing £150 are driving away young people and risk keeping theatre ‘elitist’.

Scott told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme: “No matter how zeitgeisty or how modern you think your play is, if you are having to spend £150, no person between the age of 16-25 or beyond is going to be able to afford that. That is frustrating to me.”

Of course, these criticisms have been flung at the West End for over a decade, and they routinely bounce off armour-plated titans like ATG, a company with all the too-big-to-fail swagger of a debt collection agency.

A recent survey by The Stage newspaper showed the average price of the most expensive tickets was £141, but the average price of the cheapest had risen by more than inflation to £25. The latter development is a serious concern; these prices are creeping closer to Broadway levels.

Well, according to theatre producer Patrick Gracey, top prices “reflect demand and the willingness and capacity to pay by those people who want the best possible seats.”

He stated that it can cost up to £350,000 a week to operate a West End musical, which means that the production might need to sell £500,000 of tickets that same week to meet its operating costs.

Anyway, Cush Jumbo summed things up recently: “Audiences would be shocked to know what the actors performing on that stage are getting (paid) a week” she says. “Because it wouldn’t pay for two of those seats.”

Alas, even with the painful cost of living crisis, people are still paying the crazy prices. Of course, I agree this is a sensible way to balance the economical challenges of producing star driven work, with a limited run in the West End in 2024. But if you are on £34,963 a year – the median annual salary in the UK in 2022 – and after you have paid tax and national insurance, it would represent around one week’s pay.

Anyhow, I can’t believe it even needs to be said out loud: if no theatre producers agree to dynamic pricing on their shows, it would cease to exist. Trotting out ‘supply and demand’ won’t cut it. Economically, short-term salvation lies in the middle-class pound that extends to interval champagne and cheeseboards.

Nevertheless, I guess we are where we are. But what if that place is Birmingham? Or Bristol? Communities will soon be paying the price of horrifying 100% cuts made by the city councils to many theatre’s arts funding, in a move that has been termed “cultural vandalism” by many.

A holy slap has been delivered to theatres, and even a business built on pretending increasingly no longer avoids acknowledging it.

Suffolk County Council is exploring a new funding model after the total withdrawal of investment. Meanwhile, senior Labour councillors in Nottingham have refused to back proposed recent council cuts that included an 100% reduction to arts funding.

Surely it is now time for the bigger theatres to develop more innovative approaches to pricing, and address head on the issue that keeps most people out of theatres: the fact that the cost of going is often disproportionate to the experience offered. 

The increasing number of lotteries for tickets are not the answer, either. Often these lotteries involve very few tickets. 

Bring back day seats.

With the world on the brink of nuclear armageddon, I know this all sounds like a lazy swipe at the West End for being an uncaring behemoth, and of course it is, but there’s a serious point. 

We have got a big problem.

Indeed, judging by the commercialisation of theatre, current elitist trends and hundreds of comments on social media around this topic, perhaps 2024 will be the year the West End finally becomes a place where the young, working class and state educated are no longer welcome. 

That would be a tragedy.

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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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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