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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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For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy writer and Director Ryan Calais Cameron’s vision is bold and unapologetic, weaving together a tapestry of vignettes that oscillate between introspection and explosive catharsis. 

Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1976 work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Calais Cameron’s play opens with six young men: Tobi King Bakare, Shakeel Haakim making his professional debut, Fela Lufadeju, Albert Magashi, Mohammed Mansaray and Posi Morakinyo. 

This is a memorable piece about Black masculinity and Black life in Britain, the wounds and crises of class conditioned by the background weather of race and identity. The nature of manhood is one of Mr. Calais Cameron’s chief concerns.

It’s an entirely unique vision and wrongfoots us from the start. Exhilarating and emotionally rich exploration of masculinity, mental health and the six men’s relationship with black history. The production’s emotional intensity is all the greater for the fierce restraint that the actors—and the characters—display.

One is passed over by the girls playing kiss-chase. Another is subjected to a “routine check” by police in Hackney. There’s the one who accuses his educated friend of being “whitewashed” as he tries to fit in. This was exciting, unnerving, bristling with youth and volume. 

The crucial thing is that this play – now on its second West End run – is urging people to look hard at these profound issues around human behaviour, and really think about what makes people who they are. 

Here, too, the entire ensemble’s acting is elegant, emotional, and superb in all its impacted pain and ongoing struggles. The combination of artistry and emotional directness in this play is overwhelming to me.

Anna Reid’s fluorescent playground set and costume design is terrific. The music — hip-hop, R&B, astute classical sound design and composition by Nicola T. Chang — is both surprising and perfect. 

Lighting wise, Rory Beaton paints the stage not in the gritty, neorealist tones expected of such streetwise stories, but with the rich textures and saturated colours of a waking dream that uniquely mixes music, movement, storytelling, and verse.

Overall, this is a provocative piece of theatre that delves deep into the complexities of the black male experience. With raw honesty and poetic flair, the production navigates themes of identity, mental health, and systemic oppression with an unflinching gaze. 

Red Pitch, a piece about three Black teenagers first seen at the Bush, is running up the road at the new Soho Place theatre. Watching this at the Garrick Theatre I noticed how racially and socially mixed the audience was compared with nearly every other West End show. 

But we’re starved of these narratives in the West End and Calais Cameron’s raw drama showcases why they are so hugely important.

Considering this started life at the 80-seater New Diorama in 2021, it’s a stunning achievement but also proves theatre can flourish on the small scale, by commissioning fresh, interesting work that doesn’t rely on expensive production.

Late to the party, I know. Alas, I doubt that I will see a better play in the West End this year.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is at the Garrick theatre, London until 4 May

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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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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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Edinburgh Fringe Shouldn’t Exist In A Civilised Society

The 76th Edinburgh Fringe festival has begun but there is concern some parts of the event may be under threat because of the financial climate.
Organisers of the Edinburgh Fringe have declared the situation has reached a “crisis point” and also admitted the event’s long-running financial model is “no longer viable for anyone”.

The boss of one of the Fringe’s biggest venue operators, Assembly Festival has warned the company may not survive another year due to a £1.5m debt and was surviving on a short-term loan.

The Stage Awards and The Total Theatre Awards, both key opportunities where talent is discovered, won’t go ahead this year. Indeed, ministers respond to growing hardship by telling the public to just work more hours.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti has cautioned that the city is facing an “identity crisis”

Does it matter? This year marks the second largest programming on record, with 3,535 shows registered in 248 venues, it is the Fringe that dominates the city each year and nothing seems to stand in its way. Furthermore, according to a report from The Scotsman, local business and hotels indicate demand for accommodation suggests that the attendance rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Business as usual. 

But I would say it does matter for several reasons. My real concern, in viewing the ecology of the Fringe are for performers and audiences from low-income backgrounds – incurring debt and making huge sacrifices to be there – accessing the festival. 

What record breaking tourism ignores is that, in the complex ecology of British theatre, everything is interconnected.

In some ways, the “crisis point’ feels most emblematic of all the current systemic failings and their knock-on costs to ordinary people who simply cannot afford them.

Since right now, civilised long weekend accommodation would set you back £1,300-2,000 for four nights – flats are being listed at around £10,000 for the month – that is before travel, food, and theatre tickets.

In a sobering read, The Guardian ran a piece recently that featured performers considering the financial risks. 

As one act puts it: “If you break even that’s a bonus… It’s not just about bums on seats, the more important thing is using the fringe to generate relationships with people interested in the work. We should end up with tour dates for 2024. That’s why you go. It’s an investment.”

Anyhow. Times critic Clive Davis, meanwhile, summed it up in his column: “For the past couple of days I’ve been staying in a run-down student block near Holyrood. My room is cell-like and the soundproofing so flimsy that I can hear the woman in the next room clearing her throat. Four of us are sharing a shower and toilets; on the first day I was here there was no hot water.”

Oh dear.

If all this wasn’t implausible enough, I can only congratulate a group of performers who travelled from the US staying in a disused Cold War bunker after being quoted £30,000 for accommodation in the city centre of Edinburgh for the month of August.

For that you can blame the greed of Edinburgh City Council who, by disobeying the simple rules of supply and demand, have reduced the market value of the Fringe to the point that, sooner or later, it will inevitably collapse.

Too little too late. Sigh.

Anyway, I will be in Edinburgh for 4 nights (17-21 Aug). If you have show tips, email mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com – I’ll be updating this blog daily. 

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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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Rufus Norris is stepping down in 2025 as artistic director of the National Theatre

What will his legacy be?

As you may by now have read, The National Theatre’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, announced his departure this week; he had been an associate director at the NT since 2011.

When Norris took over the NT in 2015, it felt like an institution at the height of its powers. It was also the heady days pre-Brexit, social media was not such a cesspool and there was plenty of cash in the reserves.

This week, low-key Norris, who has also served as chief executive of the NT since 2015, described his time in charge as the “greatest privilege” of his career but also “the most challenging in our history”.

Having steered the NT through the pandemic and Brexit, Norris, has been dealing more recently with an £850,000 DCMS budget cut by Arts Council England.

Norris made his feeling known that Levelling-up in the arts should “not be at the expense of London.”

He added: “What London contributes to our economy and creative status in the world is enormous and outweighs the small amount of money we are talking about”.

Point of fact, the six artistic directors in the theatre’s history have all been white men: Sir Laurence Olivier (1963-73), Sir Peter Hall (1973-88), Sir Richard Eyre (1988-97), Sir Trevor Nunn (1997-2003), Sir Nicholas Hytner (2003-15) and Norris.

You wonder, then, if the NT may explore dual leadership, like the recent appointment of Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey as co-artistic directors at the RSC. Perhaps the first person of colour will take the reins.

Indeed, Norris also made a handful of structural changes that will have a legacy.

First up? Norris has actively championed environmental sustainability (the NTs energy bill has gone up from £800,000 a year to £3.5 million per year) and a green agenda.

During the pandemic and at a time of great uncertainty, Norris appointed brilliant Clint Dyer as deputy artistic director to oversee the theatre’s creative output.

The absolute highlight of Norris’s entire tenure for me, though, saw him oversee The National Theatre Collection, set up in 2019, that is now streamed in 85% of secondary state schools, for free.

Let’s not forget National Theatre at Home, too.

Furthermore, on stage the NT has had success on the increased diversity, and gender equality front.

And over the next 12 months, 19 out of the NT’s 21 productions will be by living writers and 60% of the directors at the NT over the past eight years have made their debut. 

Of course, hits included Small Island, Jack Absolute Flies Again, The Lehman Trilogy, Mosquitoes, and current play The Motive and the Cue.

But did we get a mega hit like War Horse? No, sadly. 

Personally speaking, I found a lot of the artistic commissioning during his tenure indifferent. Norris regularly failed to introduce a basic level of quality control. See: wonder.land, Macbeth, SaloméSaint George and the Dragon, Manor, Common, Cleansed, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, and Kerry Jackson.

In fact, a journalist I was sat next to at a First Night summed up his tenure perfectly: “It’s not that Rufus has bad taste, it’s that he has no taste.”

Recently, he was also accused of “blatant nepotism” by employing his wife Tanya Ronder as book writer on baffling musical Hex

Yup, what it needed, of course, was a decent producer to tell him: “Do not remount this (again), or employ your wife at a time when creative freelancers are struggling, you’re ruining Christmas.”

Opinions, I understand, will differ on that one, as they do on nearly all matters in the theatre. It’s a tough gig.

But look, in terms of Norris’s opening mission statement, his mission to make the NT for everyone has served its purpose and more if we judge him by these words: “I think it is very important that we reflect the city and the country we are in. We have to be national in terms of what we are debating, the subjects we are looking at, and particularly the people and stories we are representing.”

Mission accomplished. Mostly.

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Shirley Valentine Proves Sheridan Smith Is Our Funniest Star

“I’m going to Greece for the sex — sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea and sex for supper!” shrieks Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine in this knowingly playful revival.

The same age as Shirley, Smith performs this midlife monologue with heart-catching charm (“It’s like theMiddle East, there are no solutions”) and this classy production exhibits real affection. Smith is disarmingly good.

Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine

Like a wonky Samuel Beckett character, Shirley’s most responsive confidante is ‘wall’. And later a rock.

In these circumstances, any change could only be an improvement. Things really get going towards the end of act 1 as she slams the door on her marriage and sets out into the future.

Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, once said of the latter that it was for people who don’t like musicals. Shirley Valentine is a play for people who don’t like plays, I think.

It’s entirely engaging and brilliant.

Anyway, fizzing Shirley heads for Greece where she blossoms like a flower in the sun, always playing directly to gallery. A lovely long bask in Smith’s maturing talent.

Structurally, this play is pretty much a music hall stand-up, directed with efficiency by Matthew Dunster. His production shrewdly offsets Paul Wills’ monochrome kitchen designs with pastel costumes and gorgeous beams of Mediterranean lighting designs by Lucy Carter. 

Fortunately, Smith more than delivers the goods in this swift-moving show about a woman who catches a glimpse of the life she could be living. Playfully cooking chips and egg, Shirley reveals her innermost thoughts to us, thereby endearing herself artlessly to the audience.

“Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, Smith says out loud – the power lies in its honesty.

Shirley’s ability to transcend the limitations of the class system is a camp joy to behold: as she conclusively tells us at the play’s end, she is now free to make her own life choices. Of course, women have moved on since it was written. Today, they know they have choices but that was only dawning on people like Shirley back then.

Reviews have been correctly brilliant. An encouraging sign that we as a community can accept the fact that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Is this what civilised society looks like? Perhaps.

It seems to me that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility, with a rare gift and wit for humanity. (Although The Stage did label the production ‘well-worn’, but Smith is quite literally above average when it comes to the whole being-a- performer and transcending the material thing, so I’m not sure if this really proves whatever point it is I’m trying to make.)

West End Producer David Pugh’s production is a love letter to live theatre – breaking the Duke Of York’s box office record for advance bookings totalling £4million in the process – and entertaining as hell.

During act 2 on the opening night, Smith accidentally knocked a wine glass prop onto the stage.

SMASH.

Her knowing composure, and ability to stay in character during the hiccup, was astonishing reminding everyone she is, by a distance, the funniest actor in the West End right now.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And if she hadn’t been awarded an OBE already, I’d be starting a petition.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London until 3 June 2023.