Posts

,

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.

 

, , ,

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.

, ,

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. 

, , ,

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.

, , ,

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?

, , , ,

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. 

, , , , ,

Edinburgh Fringe 2022: Day 2

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

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

Wilf at Traverse

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

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

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

★★★★

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

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

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

Grandmother’s Closet at Summerhall

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

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

★★★★

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

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

No Place Like Home at Pleasance Dome

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

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

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

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

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

Medea

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

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

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

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

Wilf

Grandmother’s Closet

No Place Like Home

Medea

, , ,

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

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

I used to be a theatre snob.

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

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

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

ABBA can do no wrong. 

ABBA

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

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

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

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

Mamma Mia – photo credit: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

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

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

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

Mamma Mia! – The Party

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

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

Vegetarian cuisine – Mamma Mia – The Party

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

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

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

Abba Voyage Arena – Stufish Entertainment Architects

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

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

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

‘jaw-dropping’ Voyage

One reason the evening was so enjoyable is that it is deliriously theatrical; “To be or not to be,” says the enigmatic Benny avatar to the audience at ABBA Voyage, musing between songs. “That is no longer the question.” Stunning effects blur boundaries between the digital and the “real world”. 

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

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

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

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

ABBA Voyage (Photo by Johan Persson)

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

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

See, I do have a heart.

Mamma Mia! booking until 5 March 2023 

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

Abba Voyage is booking until May 2023

, , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizard Boy

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

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

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

Half Empty Glasses – photo by Paines Plough

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

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

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

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

It’s good to be back, isn’t it?

Choir of Man

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

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

, , , , ,

£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

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

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

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

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

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

That is all.

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