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First Look: Into the Woods

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine; Co-Directed by Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman

This imaginative and delightfully playful new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods arrives as a timely celebration of the late composer’s remarkable impact on musical theatre. 

The supremely talented ensemble cast includes Julian Bleach (co-creator of Olivier Award-winning Shockheaded Peter, Doctor Who, The Borgias), Audrey Brisson (Olivier Award nominee for Amélie, Outlander), Nicola Hughes (Olivier Award nominee for Fosse and Porgy and Bess), Rhashan Stone (All About Eve, Noël Coward Theatre, Finding Alice) and Alex Young (Follies, National Theatre) alongside Gillian Bevan, Nathanael Campbell, Maria Conneely, Lauren Conroy, Phoebe Fildes, Samuel Holmes, Charlotte Jaconelli, Henry Jenkinson and Barney Wilkinson.

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Edinburgh Fringe 2022: Day 2

I really rate James Ley’s brutal but adorable Wilf, directed by Gareth Nicholls. Wilf is a Volkswagen which has had seven previous owners. (“we’ve both been used” says Calvin)

This unusual, salacious and feel-good play explores Calvin (Michael Dylan), a gay man’s journey through a breakup and sex addiction set to the soundtrack of 80s power ballads. 

Wilf at Traverse

Unexpectedly, the most striking innovatory material can be seen in the apparently modest, over-familiar form of the duologue with immensely watchable and hilarious Thelma (Irene Allan) a woman with her own issues and history. 

What impresses me most about Ley’s play is its attention to detail. The quips, the nervy shame, unpacking mental health & the brilliant design by Becky Minto.

That may make it all sound a little kooky. But this is a tender and cracking play suffused with grief and absence that scratches at the fragility of our crazy existence.

★★★★

More queer joy at Summerhall, in cabaret musical Grandmother’s Closet – performed by the immensely watchable Luke Hereford.

The closet here is a gateway to endless glitzy costume changes and small-town childhood hijinks; its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great sadness around his nan’s memory loss. 

Talented Bobby Harding plays the perfect deadpan musical foil to Hereford.

Grandmother’s Closet at Summerhall

Ostensibly, this autobiographical piece is fast and furious, occasionally crude and theatrically tender, too. But it’s mostly well-paced and entertaining as it explores the glamorous musical icons in his life, that include Judy Garland, Kylie Minogue, Jake Shears. And his nan, of course. A true ally. 

Indeed, there’s plenty of growing up gay cabarets at the Fringe but I doubt that I will see a more authentic one than Grandmother’s Closet this year.

★★★★

At Pleasance, No Place Like Home by Alex Roberts & Co. (winner of Les Enfants Terribles Award 2022) is described as a tragic odyssey into gay club culture and the places we can call home. On his first night out to a nightclub, he surprises himself.

I really, really wanted to get behind this piece, but it never takes off and it lacks grit. In this one-hander, Alex Roberts plays both Connor, a teenager exploring his sexuality, and Rob, a casual barman.

No Place Like Home at Pleasance Dome

Here, the club soundtrack and fluorescent video design is ill-pitched. It doesn’t help that there is *sometimes* quite a lot of acting going on, the kind that offers signposts rather than subtlety. 

Alas, this is a show that feels as desperate as its characters, but there are two redeeming features: the fluid physicality of Roberts and his poetry. 
★★★

2,500 years after the Euripides original and 22 years since it was last seen, the National Theatre of Scotland’s operatic Scots-language production returns.

Edinburgh International Festival’s transfixing Medea at The Hub is theatre to enchant. In Liz Lochhead’s promenade version we see things fresh-minted.  

Tom Piper’s cunningly uncomplicated set design, which raises the actors on a catwalk, with audience standing, offers a immersive view of the female-centred tragedy. 

Medea

A diverse chorus of 10 women are made up and include Pauline Lockhart, Eileen Nicholas, Janette Foggo, Wendy Seager and Fletcher Mathers. 

All of this tragic evening is steely and well-focused. It is beautifully lit by designer Colin Grenfell. Spellbinding, in fact. 

By the end, as Medea rails against the patriarchy you can’t help sobbing. 

Totally timeless. Beyond brilliant. Pure class. 
★★★★★

Wilf

Grandmother’s Closet

No Place Like Home

Medea

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Edinburgh Fringe 2022: Day 1

DOWNTOWN, the world’s largest arts festival, resembles Skid Row

Down on Skid Row

Mini tornadoes of detritus are flying into the faces of pedestrians.

Cleaners in Edinburgh have begun an 11 day strike – local authorities on Friday increased their pay offer from 3.5 per cent to 5 per cent, but until they accept it, the Edinburgh industrial action will continue. 

I will be writing to Ms Sturgeon.

Anyway, the first good thing about Myra DuBois, as far as I can glean, is that she isn’t taking prisoners. 

Uptown, DuBois – at The Dairy Room, Underbelly – ferociously addresses our problems in her camp comedy chat that flamethrowers good taste – the whole hour feels like being kicked in the shins and rolled in glitter. 

Her biting wit is on fine form as the scathing diva berates audience members’s dress sense and first world problems. If I was measuring pleasure in decibels then the screams and squirms would sound like a joyous riot.

This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Anxious For Nothing

Overall, really, really wickedly funny. 

★★★★

We’ve all read in horror describing the bureaucratic hurdles facing asylum seekers, and the inhumane Rwanda policy but plonking Exodus makes us wish we could book a one way ticket there for ourselves. 

The point of this show, i guess, is to be on the nose on a topical subject – all the best shows on television, film and stage are.

I had high hopes for this timely play at Traverse. Unfortunately, Uma Nada-Rajah’s farce about an MP using refugee intolerance to get ahead is depressingly clunky and lacks imagination. 


The attempts at farce are painful, though. I blame the director, not the spirited all-female cast.

The play revolves around Home Secretary Asiya Rao, a Priti Patel clone played with some flare by Aryana Ramkhalawon.

Exodus



This MP sets about a policy to stop migrants crossing the channel by erecting a radioactive barrier.

I lost the will to live after 20 minutes.

Max Fosh is a YouTuber with over a million subscribers. Unfortunately, his debut live show Zocial Butterfly is a laboured and repetitive experience.

Max Fosh
Max Fosh

Playing games with the audience and combining it with tepid stand-up, Foss supports his act with a slideshow and clips of his self proclaimed greatest moments. 

Nevertheless, “The A to Z of conversation” one of the games he plays – starting the first word of each sentence in a conversation in the same order as the alphabet – is just kind of mediocre. 

For his casual stage show, charismatic Fosh cracks jokes about his penis, the exotic name Gary, and his diverse education at Harrow. Hardly radical. 

★★★

Over at Summerhall the press team are on roller-skates. Literally. 

Riffing on modern gay culture, Samuel Barnett is wildly ingenious in Marcelo Dos Santos hot play Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen.

Barnett is consistently amusing and greatly enhanced by his playful, forceful manner.

Meanwhile, Matthew Xia’s startling and intelligent production marries filthy eloquence with sheer silliness that makes you laugh out loud. Pretty and witty and gay.

★★★★

One of the top picks of Edinburgh Fringe 2022, Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder: a joyous piece of theatre about two hapless best friends from Hull who host a true-crime podcast. 

Written and directed by Jon Brittain (Baby Reindeer), with irreverent music and lyrics by Matthew Floyd Jones (Frisky and Mannish) – it’s the most promising thing I’ve seen at the Fringe. 

Performed by a cast of excellent five, actors Rebekah Hinds (Kathy) and Bronté Barbé (Stella) root the heart in the hysteria. 

Kathy and Stella Solve A Murder

Also from Fleabag producer Francesca Moody, this larky whodunnit mini-musical is a complete one-off: a little bit weird, totally charming, bags of fun and very, very sweet. I loved the songs.

This show deserves a further life.

Kill for a ticket.

★★★★★
Myra DuBois’ A Problem Shared

Exodus

Max Fosh: Zocial Butterfly

Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen

Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder




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

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

I used to be a theatre snob.

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

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

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

ABBA can do no wrong. 

ABBA

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

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

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

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

Mamma Mia – photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

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

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

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

Mamma Mia! – The Party

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

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

Vegetarian cuisine – Mamma Mia – The Party

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

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

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

Abba Voyage Arena – Stufish Entertainment Architects

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

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

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

‘jaw-dropping’ Voyage

One reason the evening was so enjoyable is that it is deliriously theatrical; “To be or not to be — that is no longer the question,” virtual band member Andersson declares in a pre-recorded solo address, the stunning effects blurring boundaries between the digital and the “real world”. 

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

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

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

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

ABBA Voyage (Photo by Johan Persson)

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

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

See, I do have a heart.

Mamma Mia! booking until 5 March 2023 

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

Abba Voyage is booking until May 2023

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Belfield & Jeremy Vine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By PA News Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracy-theorist Alex Belfield

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

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

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

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

‘legal letter’ from stalker and conspiracy theorist Alex Belfield

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

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

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

Alex Belfield

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

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

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

UPDATE

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


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

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizard Boy

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

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

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

Half Empty Glasses – photo by Paines Plough

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

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

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

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

It’s good to be back, isn’t it?

Choir of Man

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

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

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£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

That is all.

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

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Jerusalem returns

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

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

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem on Broadway

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

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

Jerusalem at the Apollo

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Rickson and Jez Butterworth

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

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

Amazing. 

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

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem

A theatre moment to cherish for ever. 

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

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

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

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


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

Back to The Future the musical

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

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

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

Life of Pi’s Richard Parker walks the green carpet

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

Best revival

A Number – Old Vic

Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville theatre – WINNER!

The Normal Heart – National Theatre

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Almeida

Best entertainment or comedy play

The Choir of Man – Arts theatre

Pantoland at the Palladium – London Palladium

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

The Shark is Broken – Ambassadors theatre

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

Best musical revival

Anything Goes – Barbican 

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

Spring Awakening – Almeida

The Royal Albert Hall

Best costume design

Jon Morrell for Anything Goes – Barbican

Christopher Oram for Frozen – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

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

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

Best sound design

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

Carolyn Downing for Life of Pi – Wyndham’s theatre

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

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

Best original score or new orchestrations

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

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

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

Life of Pi – Composer: Andrew T Mackay

The cast of Get Up, Stand Up

Best theatre choreographer

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

Best actor in a supporting role

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

Best actress in a supporting role

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

Liz Carr accepting her award

Best set design

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

Best lighting design

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

Best actress in a supporting role in a musical

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

Best actor in a supporting role in a musical

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

Best actor in a musical

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

Best actress in a musical

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

Best actress

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

Best actor

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

Best director

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

Outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre

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

Best new play

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

Best new musical

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

Five special recognition award winners

Lisa Burger
Bob King
Gloria Louis
Susie Sainsbury
Sylvia Young

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Normal has walked the plank & theatre is in flux

January 2022

As we await the known unknowns of Omicron, one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. 

I am fed up. Jaded. Exhausted. None of this is normal. Normal has walked the plank.

Life of Pi

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read this, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Alas, The Music Venue Trust, which represents grassroots music venues around the country, has warned of combined losses of £22 million by the end of January – effectively undermining “the entire ecosystem that is the bedrock of a £5 billion world-leading music industry”.

Crisis management, particularly in a health emergency, demands leadership that’s firm, fast, decisive and calm. This government have failed us.

More than 150,000 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began 22 months ago. Every one of those 150,000 lives lost leaves its own story, and grief, behind. 

Unfortunately, hopes of building a fairer society and improving the lot of key workers are being trumped by a wish to return to normal.

The winter has been a disaster for hospitality and entertainment venues. Christmas – the time that institutions rely on for 40% of their annual income – was a wash out for the second year on the trot for most UK theatres. Omicron and Plan B turmoil emptied our auditoriums as audiences stayed home and creative teams self-isolated.

The industry continues to face insurmountable challenges. 

Nightclubs are shut in Wales
, with limits on hospitality, sports events and who people can meet.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has ordered capacities for seated indoor performances are cut to 200 and social distancing is back for at least three weeks.

In the past month, theatre producer Sonia Friedman has cancelled more than 158 shows and lost more than £4 million because of the continued uncertainty. “We are seeing drops in our box office of 25 and 50 per cent. There’s fear, despair and confusion all round,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The government think we are OK but we are not.” 

Still, in ‘normal times’ live events are estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, yet the Culture Recovery Fund largely failed to reach freelancers, who do the work. The government continues to stand by. 

Pride and Prejudice* (sort of*

Last week, critic Dominic Maxwell presented a vital summary of the state of play, with producer of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) David Pugh stating: “I don’t know how long we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.” The production will close in London next month and hopefully tour.

Meanwhile, in the same article, artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted that the institution will have to dip into reserves after the covid-cursed musical Hex was cancelled multiple times and will end the current run without a press night. “We are recognising that it is going to be grim over the next couple of weeks. But we will do whatever we can to keep open.” Norris says. 

In London’s West End Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye states that the lack of a robust central, unified voice of information is leaving audiences and the industry beleaguered and baffled. “The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules daily basis…” he says. “Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”

Indeed, Julian Bird, the current chief executive of the SOLT and U.K. Theatre, has acknowledged his own gathering irrelevance by announcing he will step down from the position, effective May 2022.

Hex

Bird, who has been with the organisations since 2010, said: “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that.” 

Well, quite. 

Off West End, emerging work and young talent is once again under serious threat. Also last week, as you might have seen, The Vault Festival, an annual London fringe event was cancelled for the third year in a row. 

The Vaults is an essential part of the theatre ecology – roughly six hundred shows, featuring over 2,500 performances over several months – and is often a calling card for young, underrepresented, and diverse artists. The other benefits of appearing at the festival are incalculable. 

The official statement reads: “We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”

The VAULT Festival sign above one of the underground venues

Nevertheless, the generosity and offers of advice to those affected from some sections of the theatre community have been nothing short of inspiring. More please, folks.

I have been buoyed by scenes of understudies, swings and covers saving the day – and everyone who has kept theatre going against all odds in recent weeks. Pandemic heroes.

Anyway, let us hope that new medicines and stronger vaccines are reasons for real optimism. Spring will come around and *there is a chance that* 2022 will be the year we live alongside the virus – a hope for an industry so savaged by lockdowns and government abandon. 

If you or your show have been affected by anything mentioned in this blog, need advice or help do not hesitate to contact me: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com