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UK public invited to perform with the BBC Singers in virtual event

On Tuesday 21 May at 7pm, singers of all abilities across the UK are invited to join the BBC Singers virtually, using the groundbreaking new SAFFIRE app 

The recorded performance will form part of a newly commissioned piece composed by BBC Singers’ Composer in Association Roderick Williams, which receives its world premiere at the BBC Singers’ centenary concert later this year. 

The virtual event is a collaboration between the University of York, BBC Singers, and BBC Research and Development, as part of a project designing technical approaches to creating inclusive and immersive musical experiences. The project aims to improve access to group singing so people can experience the benefits no matter where they are in the world. 

Members of the public are invited to visit https://saffire.york.ac.uk/ where they can sign up to the event, print and download the score and listen to sound files of the six parts in the choir. The SAFFIRE app is available to download now, onto a mobile device. At 7pm on 21 May, users will be able to login, select their part and join the virtual performance, which begins at 7.30pm. The app will provide the experience of singing live with members of the BBC Singers, who will be performing at the iconic BBC studios at Maida Vale. 

The performance will be recorded and the virtual singers will be played as part of the soundscape, forming part of a larger scale BBC Commission from Roderick Williams.  The piece receives its world premiere as part of a live performance from the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Singers centenary concert at the Barbican on 2 October. Singers of all abilities are invited to join the performance.  

Jonathan Manners, Co-Director and Producer, BBC Singers said: “I am thrilled that in the year we are celebrating 100 years of the BBC Singers, members of the public will have the unique opportunity to sing alongside us, virtually, through the SAFFIRE app. I know from experience that singing is a powerful way to build connections and community and I cannot wait to see it all come together at our centenary concert at the Barbican on 2 October. For those unable to join us in the concert Hall, it will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC Sounds”. 

Roderick Williams, Composer and Baritone, said: “Increasing access to classical music and especially singing is something I feel passionate about, so I am hugely pleased that anyone and everyone in the UK will have the opportunity to sing in my new piece, composed especially for the BBC Singers.” 

The project will be the first output of the CoStar LiveLAB, a brand new state-of-the-art research and development facility at Production Park in Wakefield, led by experts at the University of York. The lab, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, leverages virtual production technologies including computer generated imagery (CGI), spatial audio, motion capture and extended reality (XR) to create novel live performance experiences.  

Professor Gavin Kearney, Director of LiveLab, said: “This is a truly exciting partnership that will give members of the public a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a world-renowned choir in a performance that will be available to millions of people at the end of this year. For us as researchers, we can test this new technology as well as the experiences that people have using it, to see if this could be a way forward for opening up musical experiences to people who might not otherwise have access to it.”  

Research into virtual singing environments has already shown that virtual choirs provided a lifeline for many people during the pandemic by maintaining social connections, but that there was a unanimous sense of loss of the collective process of making music in real time due to the technical limitations of the internet.   

Experts at the University of York addressed this challenge by developing a virtual environment to allow participants to feel fully immersed within the sound of the choir and trialled the technology in care homes and at a National Trust exhibition, to positive responses from users. 

Professor Helena Daffern, Co-Director of LiveLab, said: “This new project with the BBC Singers will take our work into virtual singing experiences to another level.  We know that virtual choirs can provide a way of reaching people who have barriers to taking part in these social events, but we need more evidence to understand if virtual performances could have the same health and wellbeing impacts as they do in real life. 

“Most importantly, however, for this new project, we hope that people enjoy the experience of feeling immersed in the performance of this incredible choir in real-time and being created by such a renowned composer; it should be something that singers of all abilities will remember for a long time to come.” 

Every Prom is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds. Furthermore, £8 Promming tickets are available for every concert.
tickets are now on sale

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Cabaret on Broadway – what went wrong?

I’ve been writing about theatre and the industry for almost 10 years, attempting to be true to the spirit of what I love about shows and the people who make them.

I am also a fan of repeat visits to shows – this week, I went back to Bridge Theatre’s exuberant and immersive Guys & Dolls and returned to Sheffield’s across the decades musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge (for the fifth time). Both are examples of excellent British Theatre – world class, great storytelling and immaculate production values. Truly.

Anyway, whether here or on Twitter, the reader is in on my thought process. And I often write at first sight, or from memory. 

This, of course, has an advantage: excitement, and immediacy. But it also has resulted in my worst vice as a writer / reviewer: excess, both in damnation and praise. No doubt errors creep in as well as faulty recollections.

When I look at what I wrote about Cabaret in 2021, (‘The show of a lifetime..’) the adjectives are overblown and I now realise that I was caught up in a starry post-lockdown fizz. I succumbed.

Furthermore, I returned to the show as recently as Christmas, this time with Jake Shears and Self Esteem in the title roles. I admired a lot of it. Honestly, though, the bubble had burst. 

Then there was the grindingly smug Kit Kat Club pop-up bar in Selfridges. They can take our cash – but I can now never take them seriously.

The West End production of Cabaret won seven Oliviers, including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical for Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, and Best Musical Revival.

When Cabaret opened in London in 2022, he was joined in the cast by Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles.

In New York, that role has been taken by Gayle Rankin, who is nominated for the Tony for best actress in a leading role in a musical’s

Across the pond, however, the New York transfer has sharply divided critics. Greg Evans for Deadline wrote: “The promise of an overwhelming theatrical event just never quite makes good on itself, certainly not with Rankin’s teary, intentionally overwrought delivery of the title song. We get it. Sally isn’t meant to be a big star. I’d still rather hear Liza.”

Jesse Green of the New York Times observed that the production “many fine and entertaining moments”, but says: “a misguided attempt to resuscitate the show breaks its ribs.”

Green adds: “Cabaret has a distinctive profile already. The extreme one offered here frequently defaces it.”

In a bizarre guest column for Variety titled ‘Some Critics Don’t Understand the ‘Cabaret’ Broadway Revival. Young Women Do’, Meena Harris wrote: “But at Frecknall’s direction, Gayle Rankin powerfully embodies what is undeniably a Sally of 2024. When she sings the show’s title number (which takes place in this production after the character’s offstage abortion) we see a modern Sally: raw and real; more than likely in emotional and physical pain. She doesn’t sing, dance or exist to please others—including, it should be said, us in the audience. Instead, we see a woman who in spite of everything, has chosen herself. A woman who has chosen to survive.”

Well, now. British and American men are responsible for all the evils in the history of the world.

Cabaret is based on Goodbye to Berlin, the British writer Christopher Isherwood’s collection of stories and character studies set during the end of an era (Weimar) as the Nazis are on their way to power.

On balance, it is not an ode to survival; the material is hard and unsentimental. Glossing over the rise of fascism within the show and the public’s implicit involvement is quite something.

The bare bones of this production stumbling on Broadway, however, is greed and timing. A pair of top-price tickets cost $1,552. But then this is what late capitalism looks like, wherever in the spectrum it rears its head. In late capitalism, you should be grateful to the wealth creators to be paid at all.

On this occasion, Americans saw through it. Earlier this week, the starry production received nine Tony nominations in total – the fourth-most nominations, but it must sting that Rebecca Frecknall’s direction wasn’t recognised. Upon reflection, it is true that all the joy has been sucked out of the show.

Against this backdrop, in an interview with the Financial Times, West End Producer Sonia Friedman explained this week: “I’ve got Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway at the moment doing $1.6mn-$2mn a week. You can’t do those sorts of numbers here. But in London if a show is selling 60 per cent of tickets you can survive. In New York if you’re doing 60 per cent you’re done.”

Meanwhile, over the coming months, there are are a large number of seats for Cabaret at all pricing levels. To keep it running and to break even producers will need to hope for headline Tony wins. They may also want to keep Eddie Redmayne as the box office draw for a little longer than planned before parachuting in Jake Shears.

This is is one of the season’s biggest productions — costly, because producers remade the August Wilson Theater into the Kit Kat Club. 

Anyhow: Columnist SES/SUMS IT UP at Substack and Yank Kevin Sessums mused recently: “London is a bit more, well, endearingly provincial in its idea of what is defined as decadent. This production in London presents decadence but never really discerns it nor does it embody it. But there is a singularity to it.”

Finally, I wouldn’t want anyone who subscribes to this newsletter or indeed the blog to take it as complete guide to the theatre.

But it is a guide to the variety of pleasures that are available, from the fun to be had, to the shows to swerve to the overwhelming emotions that are drawn upon recalling great work. 

It’s OK to change your mind. Perhaps in light of World Events, this Cabaret is simply tone deaf.

So, life is disappointing? Err! Forget it!

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West End ticket prices are alienating an entire generation of audiences 🎭

TONIGHT at the Royal Albert Hall, London theatreland will gather for the annual Olivier Awards ceremony.

The Oliviers are seen as the most prestigious awards event in UK theatre.

To be eligible, shows must have played in a theatre that is represented within the membership of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT).

Pop your teeth-grinding guards in and gather round, because it’s time to talk about theatre ticket prices again. Long-suffering theatre fans know that sky-high ticket prices are now par for the course and £395 “package” seats are a complete norm for the London theatres.

In 2015, the most expensive ticket in the West End was £152.25 for The Book of Mormon. It’s more than doubled in less than a decade. 

In recent months actors Cush Jumbo, Ralph Fiennes, David Tennant, and Andrew Scott have hit out against high and elite theatre ticket prices. Some people seem perfectly happy that theatre is now a luxury item. But not me.

This week, Patti LuPone remarked: “I don’t believe how expensive the tickets are at the door. It’s become an elite sport. If you’re going to develop audiences, you have to get young people in the theatre, and they have to see more than Back to the Future.”

On Broadway, the most expensive tickets cost $599 (£480) for Merrily We Roll Along

According to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for a Broadway show has hit a new record high — last season’s (2022-2023) ticket prices corresponded to more than $128.

But if that’s what the markets will bear, what are you supposed to do?

Indeed, while three quarters of Britons are willing to go to the theatre, fewer than half have been in the last 12 months.

A recent survey by YouGov found that 41 per cent of Londoners had been to the theatre in the past year (nationwide it was 31 per cent).

How much is too much for a theatre ticket? During a cost-of-living crisis anyone using dynamic pricing, a pricing strategy that businesses use to gain increased profits by driving up prices during high demand, needs to examine what exactly they are contributing to UK Theatre.

Newsflash: The cost of theatre tickets is the main reason people don’t go.

So, what’s the answer? Will commercial theatre ever not use dynamic pricing? Short answer: No. Because it’s easier, because it’s a habit, because producers and theatre owners can’t think of anything more constructive to do, and because it gets them instant cash.

For example, leading player Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and their monopoly in the industry is harming customers and artists alike. Premium tickets for the Aladdin UK Tour at ATG’s Theatre Royal Glasgow are as much as £175.

What may sweeten the pill for theatregoers is that in some honest cases at least, the expensive premium seats are subsidising much cheaper tickets aimed at bringing in new, younger audiences.

Across the limited run of Jamie Lloyd’s Romeo & Juliet at the Duke of York’s Theatre, around 10,000 tickets for all tiers (including the front row) have sold out for £25 or less, 5,000 tickets were reserved for people under 30, key workers and in receipt of government benefits.

(Interestingly, Jamie Lloyd’s company recently became fully independent, after 10 years partnering with ATG.)

Up the road, at the Phoenix Theatre (ATG) Sonia Friedman recently revealed Netflix sci-fi prequel spin-off Stranger Things: The First Shadow is attracting “thousands of people who are coming to the theatre for the first time.”

Well, that’s great news.

There is a weekly TodayTix lottery for a dozen front-row ‘Shadow Seats’ at £19.50 each. That said, the venue is a 1,028 seat venue – so, around 1 per cent of seats are under £20 that 99.9999% people probably won’t win.

And if you want to sit in the stalls the cheapest seats are £75 — with a severely restricted view, because of the dreadful overhang from the level above. Top price tickets are as much £250. Of course, there is more price volatility, which can push prices higher due to a surge of last-minute demand.

Alas, despite rising wage bills, rampant inflation, dramatic energy costs, profits seem to be up for the usual suspects in the West End.

As for Andrew Lloyd Webber, recent LW Theatres’ accounts, reveal that sales rose by 19% to £190.7 million from £160.8 million in 2022, with the boost attributed to the end of pandemic disruptions.

In a report posted to Companies House LW noted: “We expect another full year of trading next year but anticipate our turnover and profitability will continue to be put under pressure by the cost-of-living crisis and high interest rates and the impact of these factors on consumer spending.”

Taking in the “broader economic environment”, the report emphasised LW Theatre’s aim to head off falling ticket sales by “continually monitoring and adjusting ticket prices”.

But let’s move on to Cameron Mackintosh Ltd – – that operates eight venues and produces Hamilton– the company saw turnover almost double year on year – to £186 million – Profit before tax was £45.5 million, compared with £18.9 million in 2022.

It was revealed recently that Delfont Mackintosh’s average ticket price for a play is £54. For a musical it’s £68.

Interviewed recently Cameron Mackintosh chirped, with all apparent sincerity: “You would be bloody lucky to get out of a decent restaurant, including a decent bottle of wine, for under £100. It is expensive … But it is not too expensive,”

Mackintosh added: “This is a very good system. This is capitalism working properly.” 

Honestly, no it is not.

In my wildest fantasies I’d like to think Sir Cameron would dwell on an irony here; in reality, people are contending with stagnant wages, high energy bills, staggering food prices and dreadful living standards — one in five tenants are now spending over half their salary on rent. 

Denying accusations of greed, SOLT responded to David Tennant’s criticism of “ludicrous” West End ticket prices, highlighting that average ticket prices have decreased when adjusted for inflation. Well, now. SOLT’s argument is irrelevant since pay does not go up by inflation.

The cheapest seats, which often have a restricted view, and induce vertigo increased by almost 13% this year compared with last. 

Of course, these conditions mean that rising ticket prices are alienating an entire generation of future audiences, it can’t just be left to the subsidised regional theatres to take moral responsibility for building tomorrow’s audiences

So how’s this for a plan? Transparent, clear up-front information about the cost of theatre – it would be a win for everyone.

It would demonstrate to the public how much it takes to get a show on. More schemes like Jamie Lloyd’s – ring fencing cultural opportunity for those from diverse backgrounds. 

And if Broadway publishes weekly grosses, what makes the West End so special not to?

But I’m not expecting two miracles in a week, ’cos all I’ve ever really wanted was West End theatre owners, producers and corporate companies like ATG to make theatre truly accessible. Theatre should be for everyone.

And the tragedy is that we all know it, and even the brilliant people who come up with the brilliant shows know it – but they’re still pushing premium prices because they think that it works in the very short term.

Yet in the long term, it really, really doesn’t – even the most shrewd producer should realise the damage that short-term financial gain does to public perceptions about theatre and who it is for. 

No doubt that well-oiled theatre PR machine will again defend sky-high ticket prices.

Ultimately, of course, one of the biggest questions for many remains: if theatre ceases to be a popular art for people in their twenties and thirties, will it become extinct for all but the wealthy?

Theatre is already being sidelined in favour of movies and gaming. The prominence of reviews and arts coverage is shrinking. Editors know that theatre is no longer an important part of the national cultural conversation. Yup, The Sunday Times now leads with only one theatre review and has all but given up on the idea of providing an overview of the theatre week in London.

Finally, change will not come from the generosity of those who profit from the existing state of affairs. It will emerge from the continued challenge of those who do not. 

Has the hour of need ever been greater?

The Olivier Awards will broadcast a highlights programme on Sunday 14 April at 10:10pm on ITV1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, onwards.

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Sunset Blvd

“GREAT stars have great pride…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The screen wins, every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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We need to talk about arts education

Theatre is my life. 

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

Yet here I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever happened to Levelling Up? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the unmet needs of our communities and audiences?

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

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