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Miss Saigon

Ah, Miss Saigon. You wonder why UK theatre puts itself through the torment of trying to entertain Britain. It has never been harder to produce theatre – let alone big musicals. 

I should start, then, by reminding everyone, including myself, that Miss Saigon first opened in 1989 and ran for “only” 10 years –it later transferred to Broadway and won multiple prizes including two Olivier and three Tony awards.

Following the dreary controversy surrounding Sheffield Theatres’ production of Miss Saigon– (one theatre company dropped the venue from its touring schedule in protest) here is the UK’s first brand-new production of the crowd-pleasing musical, with lyrics “modified in collaboration with the show’s original writers”. Fair enough. 

What’s undeniable, though, is that this bold Miss Saigon isn’t ‘deeply traumatic’ at all, it’s merely embroiled in another front of the 2023 culture war.

Indeed, a couple of the lyrics have been tweaked. Take for instance: “Why was I born of a race that only thinks of rice” becomes, “Why am I stuck in a place where they make you plant rice?” 

Anyhow. Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, directors of the Crucible’s production of Miss Saigon, said they had taken a “new approach” which they hoped would “shift the perspective” on the show. For me, it did.

Anyway, what is the secret of its new success? Partly the fact that music and words are by the geniuses behind Les Misérables, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. 

The score is beautiful and this production packs some impressive punches. 

Making her debut, the role of Kim was Desmonda Cathabel; a ‘Stephen Sondheim Performer of the Year’ winner, who seems a remarkable find. There were moments when she moved me to tears. 

In any case, Chris Maynard gives a powerful performance as her beloved GI Chris, though fails to generate much warmth.

It was an inspired idea to relocate the story of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly to Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon, and the production superbly captures the confusion and terror of war.

In the opera, Pinkerton’s abandonment of Cio-Cio-San strikes one as heartless. But, in this version, the lovers are separated by the enforced American evacuation of Saigon in 1975. 

So much of it works. The genuinely funny and self aware young Vietnamese women working as sex workers for the American GI troops under the watch of a sardonic local pimp called The Engineer – here gender switched and played brilliantly by Joanna Ampil. She is caught between two worlds and dreams of escape to the USA. Ampil gets maximum value from her number The American Dream, the one moment in the show of razzle dazzle. 

Overall, this ‘rigorous reimagining’ leaves one admiring the technical tightrope skill of Lau and Hastie’s production, the combined saturated designs of Ben Stones and Andrezj Goulding, which bring out particularly strikingly the gaudy vulgarity and neon ugliness of Bangkok.

Anyway, for fans of revisionism, untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play moves to Young Vic in September.

Miss Saigon runs at Crucible Sheffield until 19 August.

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Cameron Mackintosh’s comments on casting of trans actors as a ‘gimmick’ are unacceptable and dangerous


He produced Cats, a musical featuring an animatronic singing pig, and even put a real helicopter on stage, and the one thing he can’t wrap his head around is transgender people playing classic roles? 

Back once again, then, to Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who is receiving widespread backlash for calling it “gimmick casting” to cast a trans person in an existing role, in a recent interview with Telegraph.

“You can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character, that’s what I think,” he said. 

But Mackintosh wasn’t finished. “Just to do that, that becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”

Sir Cameron Mackintosh

Mackintosh, who owns eight West End theatres, rejecting the possibility of a trans performer in one of his shows reinforces the dangerous idea that there is a right way to be female. 

Simply put, his comments are cruel and inaccurate and contradict the message of empathy and understanding found in the stories of nearly all his stage musicals, including Mary Poppins

His views are damaging to real people – people who are already disproportionately marginalised – and are downright irresponsible.

Mackintosh was very much an untouchable theatre God in the 80s and 90s, at the height of his power. These days, though, the 75 year old producer is increasingly out of touch and unpleasant. 

Still, extraordinary wealth and privilege is the story of Cameron’s life. That’s why he has so much spare time to participate in thoughtless interviews. 

Indeed, this is the latest in a long line of PR disasters for the billionaire producer. Mackintosh ruthlessly made over 850 backstage and front of house staff redundant (despite furlough), allegedly mistreats his staff and said theatres that received financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic were ones that “were going to fail”

Hilariously, he recently defended a decision to reduce The Phantom of the Opera’s orchestra by half, arguing actors and musicians should not expect to “keep doing the same thing year after year.”

Anyway, earlier this year, a report commissioned by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which looked into trans casting found that commercial or mainstream theatres “very rarely commission trans-led work and that trans roles are limited” and the majority of trans-led productions were currently on at fringe venues or on tours. 

We all need to do a hell of a lot more to support transgender, non-binary people, or gender non-conforming actors in commercial and west end theatre and not invalidate their identities, and not cause further harm. 

Needless to say, transgender people in England and Wales are twice as likely to be victims of crime as cisgender people, and 2021 is set to be the deadliest yet in the US for these communities.

Mackintosh concluded his interview by saying: “As far as creating the new genre of musicals, it isn’t going to be my generation that’s doing it, because I know what I know from my generation.”

Oh right. I want that in blood, obviously. But thanks, Cameron. It’s appreciated.

Les Miserables

Newsflash: 🏳️‍⚧️ Trans women are women. 🏳️‍⚧️

On 30th August, Cameron Mackintosh tweeted an apology and clarification related to his comments about transgender performers.

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My 2020 Theatre Heroes & Villains

Theatre Heroes and Villains of 2020

AH, dear old 2020.

In mid-March Covid-19 prompted all British theatres and arts centres to close their doors.

From that moment onwards, the carnage, pandemonium, weirdness and misery barely let up; our world-beating £7 billion cultural sector, so savaged by lockdowns that it remains at risk of permanent decimation.

A socially distanced Watermill Theatre in Newbury, with select seats wrapped as presents for the future.

For the first time in its 70 year history, the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled. Broadway shows are expected to remain closed through to at least May 2021.

There was, though, many great acts of heroism; not all heroes wear capes.

Let’s begin with the National Theatre. The NT at Home initiative was one of the biggest virtual triumphs of lockdown; it broadcast 16 productions for free on YouTube, clocked up 15 million views and reached 173 countries.

The one-off free streaming of Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s potent monologue Death of England: Delroy – which had its live run cut short – was sensational.

The NT has today launched a brand new streaming platform National Theatre at Home – featuring a range of NT Live productions and, for the first time, some treasured plays from the NT archive.

For unlimited access to the catalogue on National Theatre at Home, a subscription will be £9.98 per month or £99.98 per year. For access to a single play in a 72 hour window, it will be £5.99 for an NT Archive title and National Theatre Live titles are available from £7.99.

I thought ITV’s three-part drama Quiz, written by James Graham – based on his stage play that began at Chichester Festival Theatre- was a masterstroke.

The dark irony was, though, that the ‘coughing major’ comedy was one of the few TV shows that was good enough to make us all forget the ongoing medical crisis for its duration. Graham donated his full commission to funds for freelancers.

Looking back now, one of my personal favourite moments involved a last-minute decision to throw open my Zoom on Friday evenings to anyone who wanted to take part in a theatre quiz. It was unexpectedly popular and rewarding and, in the chaos of lockdown, very moving.

ITV Quiz

During that first lockdown I came to a crossroads when I realised that the secret truth at the heart of almost all theatre is: Everyone’s Doing Their Best.

It’s hard to say why this revelation impacted me so deeply. Had I previously been under the impression that people were deliberately making terrible theatre, or simply being terrible at their jobs, just to annoy me? I came to realise that most things are simply bad by accident.

Anyway, this year, she closed 18 shows. Paused 10.

Sonia Friedman Productions continued its success at the 2020 Olivier Awards, scooping the coveted Best New Play Award for the fourth consecutive year with the intimate and epic Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstadt.

Incredibly, SFP was also responsible for a superb filmed stage version of Uncle Vanya starring Toby Jones. It was a hit in UK cinemas and will be screened on BBC Four this Christmas. This woman has been my idol all of my professional life, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre

All year, producer Friedman used her clout to lobby government. Announcing comedy play The Comeback in the West End, she said: “Medicine saves lives, but culture makes life worth living.”

Looking back now, many of UK theatre’s producers and artistic directors rose to the challenges of the pandemic – combining laser-focus and decision making-authority with a real emotional feel for the creative workforce.

Of course, there are plenty of people in the industry who are simply phoning it in.

But so many took exciting digital work to audiences or streamed archive productions. Under Elizabeth Newman’s leadership, just one of a number of bright ideas, Pitlochry Festival Theatre set up a Telephone Club for vulnerable members of the community, Alan Lane and Slung Low continue to meet local needs distributing food and books to the people in south Leeds.

Artistic director Alan Lane, left, and The Slung Low team at the Holbeck.

The Unicorn theatre presented Anansi the Spider Re-Spun: fun virtual performances, created in lockdown, for children. Cultural organisations like this remain vital to communities, enabling young people’s creativity, whilst fighting for survival.

Throughout those initial long Covid months, there were modest acts of heroism from producer David Pugh and his touring production of Educating Rita at the open-air Minack Theatre in Cornwall. I loved it.

Pugh later made light of the fact that profits for investors were enough for ‘a meal at KFC’. The show has a week-long run at the Mayflower in Southampton in February.

To her credit, Nica Burns reopened the first West End theatres post lockdown – welcoming audiences back to the Apollo – for Adam Kay’s show about the NHS, This Is Going To Hurt. Burns will reopen the first West End musicals Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Six and hopes this return will prove the sector is safe and ready to resume.

Staying with the heroes, film and theatre director Sam Mendes called on Netflix — who profited from the acting, writing and directing talent nurtured on stage during lockdown— to pour some of their COVID-19 cash into British theatre. Netflix obliged, with the Theatre Artists Fund for freelancers. Mendes’ practical suggestions included: increasing the theatre’s tax relief scheme from 20% to 50%, and inviting the government to become “theatrical angels”, by investing in productions.

Moreover, performers deserve huge credit for keeping us all entertained online: Rob Madge and Oscar Conlon-Morrey lift our spirits on Twitter during these difficult times.

Pick of the bunch, for me, is Kieran C Hodgson impersonating characters from The Crown – Season 4. Genius.

10-year-old ‘#CheerUpCharlie’ Kristensen released a charity single with some of his West End favourites to raise money for the Diana Award. Little legend.

The Bush theatre commissioned six black British artists to respond to the killing of George Floyd, the results, The Protest, were astonishing, disturbing, vital and offered urgent perspectives on Floyd’s death.

Wise Children’s Emma Rice and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris on stage at Bristol Old Vic in September

Elsewhere, Black Broadway and West End stars performed an ambitious online charity concert, organised by Nicole Raquel Dennis and Ryan Carter, this event supported the Black Lives Matter movement: Turn Up! Live at Cadogan Hall , raised nearly £13,000 for four charities and picked up a Black British Theatre Award.

One of my biggest treats was visiting Bristol to see the Romantics Anonymous one-night only performance, with a live socially distanced audience.

In September, Emma Rice’s Wise Children and Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris were dazzlingly inventive, partnering with venues to present a “digital tour” of the musical – allowing individual regional theatres to sell tickets across specific nights.

The shows will go on – in some tiers. The government’s post-lockdown plans give the green light to productions fortunate enough to find themselves in Tiers 1 and 2. Boris Johnson has announced that theatres in Tier 3 will remain closed.

Oracle Cameron Mackintosh

Villains? (Deep breath)

It was the year when theatre vanished from our lives. And Cameron Mackintosh didn’t.

Disappointingly, the West End producer got rid of 850 staff early on in the crisis, said theatres that received financial aid were ones that “were going to fail”, allegedly mistreats his staff, declared himself an “oracle” for predicting disaster and has been snow-ploughing his way through the darker recesses of the pandemic ever since.

Mind you, compensation came in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber – who took part in the Oxford Coid-19 vaccine trial – joining TikTok.

Take a moment. I know I just did.

Perhaps most importantly, Arts Council England did a good job of turning around the government’s Culture Recovery Fund and rescued struggling organisations of all shapes and sizes.

Overall, that £1.57bn rescue fund has protected our theatres, concert halls, arts centres and opera houses.

Slytherin culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s intervention was not enough to save every institution and although we were all thankful for the money, financial models are bust.

Indeed, the government continue to do the bare minimum for an estimated three million self-employed workers. At one point, Pantomime dames marched to Parliament Square.

Slytherin Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak

Find another job, said the surefooted chancellor Rishi Sunak. By forgetting our workforce and dismissing an entire sector, the chancellor has begun to reveal his true ideological colours. But our sector is key to our national identity, provides hope – and billions for the Treasury.

On top of that idiocy, the suggestion from the government seems to be that arts jobs aren’t viable. They are, Mr Sunak, and when the time comes, the powerhouse theatre industry will play a crucial part in the nation’s recovery.

Above all, I was appalled by The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) who failed to inform customers how they could obtain cash refunds instead of hopeless credit vouchers. With countless shows axed or postponed, many found it impossible to get money back – not only that, ATG were not automatically refunding transaction fees, claiming this was in line with the industry’s Code of Practice (newsflash: it definitely wasn’t).

Birmingham Rep, The #LightItInRed campaign involved more than 500 buildings

At least, though, there has been some last-minute redemption for ATG; the operator has now furloughed its 2,500 casual staff and is gifting tickets for pantomimes to NHS workers this Winter, which is a Christmas miracle.

If we’re really looking for the individuals who’ll push theatre forward through the sheer force of their own imagination, in my opinion, they are more than likely to be creative freelancers. We must protect them.

And the self employed may be more widely visible through the Freelancers Make Theatre Work group, #thescenechangeproject and The Freelance Task Force. But they must never be taken for granted again.

The Theatre Artists Fund was set up to support UK theatre workers and freelancers falling into financial difficulty while theatres remain largely closed. Many freelancers have lost everything and we are losing thousands of highly skilled theatre-makers.

Saving buildings is pointless without protecting the people who make art. For now, I have financial security. That is why I plan to donate 50% of my December salary to Theatre Artists Fund.  If you are able to, so should you.

As I say, everyone has been doing their best. Stay present, thanks for reading this year, and Merry Christmas.

 

 

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An Open Letter to Cameron Mackintosh

Dear Cameron,

I was disappointed to read your comments in The Times that the commercial, large-scale west end is more deserving of government support than subsidised theatres in light of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Your claims that theatres receiving financial aid were ones “that were going to fail”, and were those that were “vaguely solvent or been able to look after their money” were harmful. Indeed, stupid.

Furthermore, I, like many of my colleagues was saddened to read that you felt the need to lay off 850 casual and freelance staff.

Global recession aside, you could have taken the hit to support workers until the end of October and still protected your significant wealth.

Needless to say, your recent article for the Evening Standard told me only two things: where you are at, and just how out of touch you are.

It would be cynical, of course, for one to suggest you are saying things to distract attention from less flattering areas of your business – the complaints about alleged working conditions at Delfont Mackintosh, your grotty stance on Brexit or the recent debacle with The Phantom of the Opera in London.

So, can I encourage you to dismount the high horse, admit your political bias and adjust your perspective? I understand it is hard for a creative spirit like yours to lie low for too long.

What you should be doing, of course, is dreaming up bold and imaginative new ways to see us through these difficult times. God knows we need that.

Regrettably, what you are actually doing at the moment, is undermining an industry on its knees. And that is wrong. And it’s disappointing.

Regional theatres may not be at the top or your agenda but they are the bedrock of our culture – dismiss that civic role at your peril.

Arts centres and theatres outside the M25 in villages, towns and cities lend UK theatre its authentic diversity and richness. Much of their success comes from the provenance to a particular community. Everything is interlocked.

One sentiment that we can both agree on is that it is good business to do good business; I know that you pride yourself on your acumen.

For some of us, away from the glittering west end it’s choosing, if able, to shop with local businesses over big supermarket chains.

For other’s it’s seeing sense in taking a short-term hit on that pricier but more robust hoover because you really don’t want to buy more than one between now and death. There’s a lot to be said for consumer choice, ethics and brand reputation.

Theatre is hard work. It’s also an industry that’s now harder than ever to access if you’re working class. If you’re born outside of London.

With this in mind, theatres across England have had no choice to respond to the difficult challenges posed by prolonged austerity and a decade of funding cuts; their increased reliance on income from box offices, cafes and bars has made them uniquely vulnerable.

I’ve always admired your dedication to refurbishing your theatre buildings; investing significant money in making them fit for 21st century audiences.

Quite simply, though, theatre is about the people and the talent, not just the bricks and mortar.

Yours sincerely,

Carl Woodward

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What the hell is going on with The Phantom of the Opera?

The West End’s second longest running show, is to end after more than 30 years.

Cameron Mackintosh & Andrew Lloyd Webber

It reached crescendo, yesterday, when producer Cameron Mackintosh confirmed in an article for the Evening Standard that the London production has been “permanently shut down” as a result of the coronavirus.

The decision to end the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was said to have been reached after the surprise £1.5bn rescue package for the arts “failed to materialise”.

A knee-jerk move that told us one of two things.

Either Mackintosh thinks the public are so dangerously stupid they wouldn’t notice a 1,500lb Chandelier prop on the pavement, or there’s nothing the superproducer won’t do for publicity.

This is, after all, Cameron Mackintosh: a relentless, formula-driven, and shrewd producer where spontaneity is rarely on the menu.

It is probably worth mentioning that Mackintosh (whose shows include Les Misérables and Hamilton) came in at 119th place on the Sunday Times Rich List, with an estimated wealth of £1.24bn.

Anyway, Lloyd Webber recently tweeted that he would try to preserve the “brilliant original” version of the long-running musical, when it does return.

Although, I’m not 100 per cent sure that the the old show is ever coming back. 

“On top of this,” Mackintosh continued, “Andrew and I have had to sadly permanently shut down our London and UK touring productions of The Phantom of the Opera, but are determined to bring it back to London in the future.”

What still slightly surprised me, however, was how casually and confusingly this was announced, and that all touring productions of Phantom will also cease to operate.

The musical’s world tour, recently in Seoul,  survived the pandemic, weathered a cast outbreak to become perhaps the only large-scale show running, and playing eight shows a week.

Her Majesty’s Theatre

Has Cam Mack contrived a way of automating the show, slicing production costs, and cutting royalties by installing the UK touring production in 2021?

Interestingly, Delfont Mackintosh HQ were not aware that the producer had written the Standard article until they saw the front page tweeted by George Osborne. 

Apart from the bungled announcement, though, I don’t bear Mackintosh too much resentment, The musical has had an outstandingly good 33 year run globally.

Maybe a new musical could take up residence once the overdue refurbishment is complete.

That said, what long-term business lesson will actually be learned from this? There are no signs that the producer is intending to shut down Les Miserables, for example.

But Mackintosh had ‘updated’ that original production and plonked the inferior 2010 tour staging in the recently refurbished Sondheim Theatre, minus the revolve.

Furthermore, Mackintosh went on to raise concerns about the validity of employing social distancing in theatres. 

“My loyal production and theatre management staff have been cut by 60 per cent reduced to a dedicated team who will look after these priceless historic buildings so they are ready to ramp up back into production the moment the Government accepts that social distancing, which I have been totally opposed to from the outset, is no longer a requirement.”

Twenty four house of chin stroking later and echoing what Mackintosh said in his article Lloyd Webber tweeted: “As far as I’m concerned, Phantom will re-open as soon as is possible.

Repeat ’til fade.