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Theatre to look forward to in 2023

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

GUYS AND DOLLS 

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

MISS SAIGON 

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

CRAZY FOR YOU

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

SYLVIA 

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

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

A LITTLE LIFE 

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

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

OPERATION MINCEMEAT 

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

STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE 

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

Got it? Good.

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

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES

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

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF 

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

SHIRLEY VALENTINE 

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

LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS 

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

IN DREAMS 

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

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

Casting has yet to be revealed…

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

Carl x

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A Streetcar Named Desire is everything you want Theatre to be

Mescal, Credit…Marc Brenner


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasty Ferran as Blanche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Childs is, understandably, proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Standing at the Sky’s Edge Cast Recording Released January 2023

Chris Bush and Richard Hawley’s magnificent across-the-decades musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge Official Cast Recording – recorded live – will be released on digital platforms and CD on 27 January 2023. Now you know.


The award winning musical – set in Park Hill, Sheffield is running at Crucible Theatre until 21 January 2023.

Winner of the Best Musical Production at the UK Theatre Awards and the 2020 South Bank Sky Arts Award for Theatre, Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a celebration of strength and solidarity, set to the irresistible sounds of Richard Hawley.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at National Theatre, London from 9 Feb until 25 Mar 2023.

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Win 2 x tickets to Tammy Faye at the Almeida -Tuesday 15 November 2022

Tammy Faye

Many performances of Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre are sold out. If you are on this page its your lucky day! Sign up for our mailing list using the form below to enter the lucky draw for two tickets to the show on 15 November. This contest is open to residents of UK only.

 

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NPO Funding decisions 2023-26

Here we are, then.

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

The Handmaid’s Tale

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

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

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

NPO funding results ranked by percentage loss

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

What do I think?

Firstly, today is disastrous for most theatres. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NT Public Acts at Cast in Doncaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is It Time To Bin The Embargo?

The embargo. 

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

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

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

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

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

the cast of Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, the complainers have entirely missed the point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have no dramatic conclusion. Just a small suggestion. 

Raise a little hell.

Stay strong, readers. 

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God Bless Tammy Faye!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tammy Faye curtain call

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

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

Rannells is entertaining and effective as closeted husband Jim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love more than hate,” Tammy Faye cautions.

Amen.


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

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Has Edinburgh Fringe Finally Hit The Wall? *Reset required*

Where are we with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s slow-motion death spiral.

Even in 2021-22, a recovery year, more than 2.2 million ticket sales were recorded across the fringe: the sixth-highest figure in the event’s 75-year history. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, the eight major producing venues at the fringe sold 1,965,961 tickets, but projected ticket sales fell by 25% in its first full year back to just 1,486,746. The lack of the Fringe app didn’t help. 

There were around 3,582 shows to choose from, playing at 277 different venues. However, most shows I attended were barely at 60% capacity.

Over to William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly, who estimated that venues had missed out on £7m in revenue because ticket sales were down by a quarter, resulting in “significant loss[es]”.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This “really has hurt” the companies delivering the shows, with the result that some may not survive without fundraising or government support, he said. In a normal year Burdett-Coutts said he would expect 10% of the companies he booked not to be able to cover their costs, but this year it would be more like 60%. It’s telling, too that Royal Military Tattoo in Edinburgh audiences were down around 20% this year. 

It’s also telling that Assembly, Dance Base, Gilded Balloon, Just the Tonic, Pleasance, Summerhall, Underbelly and ZOO collectively condemned soaring accommodation costs as the biggest risk to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s future, it urgently needs to adapt to survive. These 8 venues account for 60% of the tickets sold during the event. 

Meanwhile, premium pricing reached the festival; £107 ‘VIP tickets’ for Ian McKellen’s 75 minute Hamlet. Totally against the spirit of the fringe, and the beginning of a trend to make commercial gains and hoping to go unnoticed. Pure greed.

Its hard to know what to say about arts coverage – The Stage reviewed 178 shows this year, which is less than previous years. Impressive nonetheless.

The Scotsman state that their arts coverage has been pretty consistent for years. Indeed, there are more people with their own platforms writing about theatre than ever before. Unfortunately, due to rocketing accommodation costs many are staying for shorter periods – myself included.

Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s “free speech” venue The Pleasance cancelled the Glaswegian comedian Jerry Sadowitz for being offensive. Sadowitz has long been known for routines that most people would find grossly offensive.

Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, a bin strike left Edinburgh looking like Beirut; Street performers and residents were left litter picking after bin workers began a 12-day waste collection strike.

The bin strike in Edinburgh on its fourth day

 The Guardian went with the headline “The Edinburgh fringe is too long, too expensive, and too gruelling. It must change or die”. The Stage opted for: “The fringe will have to change, or it will wither”. 

Either way, somebody is getting rich, mostly greedy landlords. (Nica Burns unwelcome suggestion that Edinburgh Council waive legislation designed to protect tenants to bring costs down was plain stupid.) 

So, Edinburgh is now firmly the centre of capitalism – should we judge it as big business doing what it does i.e., centralising, synergising, excluding, and closing the shop to the in crowd? Probably.

For at the exact moment culture loving audiences need to be lifted out of an endless cycle of news misery with merriment and laughter, though, the Fringe Society have somehow dampened the mood even further with inaction and the go-to phrase: “It’s out of our hands.”

It isn’t, of course.

It is a very convenient way of transferring responsibility for something that sits with them. 

How long, in fact, can the Fringe Society’s alternative reality avoid contact with actual reality? Indeed, the festival stands at a crossroads, with costs for performers soaring and many younger acts staying away. Everyone blames everyone else – there is no joined up thinking.

Princess Khumalo and Sara Hazemi in A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

And what about diversity? The fringe talk a good game. However, if you want to know exactly how far this commitment to diversity really stretches, though, read the damning open letter by Nouveau Riche. They highlight incidents of racism experienced during the 2022 Fringe and call for a fundamental overhaul of the event to reflect the diversity of wider society. 

The theatre company said that it was surprised “little had changed in terms of diversity and safety” for black and global majority artists since it performed at the fringe in 2018, despite the wider industry taking steps towards inclusion and anti-racism.

Organisations such as Fringe of Colour and Best in Class are working hard to address this, but a reset is now urgently required. But what’s impossible to stomach is Fringe Society spokesperson, in all apparent sincerity, telling us: “The fringe is an open-access arts festival’. 

Access is and continues to be a total disgrace. The Fringe Society boasts that ‘60% of fringe shows are in accessible venues to wheelchair users’ – that still leaves over 1,400 spaces that are inaccessible to disabled audiences.  

So that’s the venues. There will be those of you feeling pessimism is the rational response, and it’s hard to disagree. The question is not just whether the world’s largest arts festival is elitist: the question is whether it is sustainable.

Samuel Barnett in Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen at Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The simple solution would be to get tough with the greedy landlords, introduce a diversity quota to level the chaotic playing field, cap the festival at 2,000 performances and grow a spine. By putting artists first, the creative industries have a chance to reshape itself into a business that makes money and passes it on the creative people who deserve to be paid fairly for their work.

Against this backdrop, the rich – whose wealth swelled during the pandemic – remain unaffected. But young people see no rational incentive to back a system that seems to offer little other than insecurity, debt, and personal crisis- and that fact is surely becoming ever more obvious. The fringe’s model promotes the concentration of wealth among a select few at the expense of everybody else’s.

But for all the barbs I aim at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I hope it endures, not just as it fills a big hole in a quiet month, the stars of tomorrow are there, everything is up for grabs. The city is so completely beautiful. The people are, too.

Miraculously, the under-fire figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy has secured the “full” backing of its board.

As the cost-of living crisis is set to worsen, a new democratic and inclusive festival is waiting to be born – one that breaks decisively with all the failed systems of the past.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World credit: Jeff J Mitchell

Old habits die hard after 75 years, though. The Fringe Society takes itself incredibly seriously and I sense the leadership void will prevent it from performing such a spectacular 180-degree turn.

If it comes to pass, the festival publicity department is welcome to use some of the tweets I’ve received this week in answer to my question How would you describe Edinburgh Fringe 2022 in one word: ‘Full-of-rubbish’ and ‘Enraging’ and ‘Over’.

Time to reset. if not now, when?

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Into The Woods, Theatre Royal Bath: be careful what you wish for

“‘Horror! Shame! Disgrace!’ laughs Terry.” runs the programme note asking what co-directors Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman want audiences to take away from Into The Woods in Bath. 

Mm. 

The cast of Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Some evenings at the theatre make an instant impact, others lurk in your unconscious and won’t go away.

As you may recall, last year the Old Vic cancelled Gilliam’s show following unrest (he’d made contentious comments about Netflix special by comedian Dave Chappelle and the #MeToo movement) about its original decision to programme the production. 

During the pandemic, Theatre Royal Bath agreed to re-home the production.

Terry Gilliam & Leah Hausman on stage with the cast of Into The Woods

In that context, this disquieting revival becomes a riposte. With a cast of 23, the macabre musical is almost too vast for Bath’s proscenium, but it wittily (and pertinently) blends the carnivalesque and the gothic.

Anyway, in the first half of co-director’s Gilliam’s and Hausman’s slippery production, a childless couple go on a quest to lift a curse placed by a witch (Nicola Hughes). We encounter as Red Ridinghood (Lauren Conroy), Cinderella (Audrey Brisson) Jack of the Beanstalk (Barney Wilkinson), Rapunzel (Maria Conneely) and of course the Baker (Rhashan Stone) and his wife (Alex Young)– all of whom seem emotionally damaged. And even The Mysterious Man (Julian Bleach) can only raise a snarl.

In the superior second half, an unforgiving giantess inflicts mayhem on the fairy-tale community, whose survivors realise self-discovery. There’s magic in the air around Young as the childless Baker’s Wife and superb Brisson as Cinderella – they are the key to what makes this evening so beguiling, I think. 

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Interestingly, Sondheim saw the richly atmospheric designs before he died and is said to have wholly approved. This surreal staging ingeniously mashes up the vividly dark and the popular.

Ingenious use is made of designer Jon Bausor’s Victorian toy theatre creation: a sinister cuckoo sits above the curtain, a large chicken with “Made in China” on its thigh lays a golden egg, a massive pocket watch drops from the sky, counting down hours to undo the curse. 

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

Elsewhere, Will Duke’s opulent video designs compliment the storytelling effortlessly. The ensemble is drilled. The singing is good.

It’s a heady mix: political, playful and profound.

Gilliam and his co-director Hausman make us unsure if we are to care about the characters, or if it is all just for a laugh – there is a lot of mugging off – and this can occasionally be at the expense of the more melancholy numbers. 

Furthermore, too often this rollicking production mistakes the overwrought for genuine emotion. You never really emotionally connect with any of the material. Well, except for Milky White – Jack’s bug-eyed pantomime cow. 

Still, it’s a dreamlike evening defiantly served not just by its leads but the entire top-notch, shape-shifting ensemble and a small but perfectly formed 10-piece band.

Into the Woods at Theatre Royal Bath. Photo: Marc Brenner

So, transfer Into The Woods? Only if it comes with this warning out front: ‘be careful what you wish for’.  

Into The Woods runs until 10 September at Theatre Royal Bath.