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Normal has walked the plank & theatre is in flux

January 2022

As we await the known unknowns of Omicron, one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. 

I am fed up. Jaded. Exhausted. None of this is normal. Normal has walked the plank.

Life of Pi

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read this, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.

Alas, The Music Venue Trust, which represents grassroots music venues around the country, has warned of combined losses of £22 million by the end of January – effectively undermining “the entire ecosystem that is the bedrock of a £5 billion world-leading music industry”.

Crisis management, particularly in a health emergency, demands leadership that’s firm, fast, decisive and calm. This government have failed us.

More than 150,000 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid test since the pandemic began 22 months ago. Every one of those 150,000 lives lost leaves its own story, and grief, behind. 

Unfortunately, hopes of building a fairer society and improving the lot of key workers are being trumped by a wish to return to normal.

The winter has been a disaster for hospitality and entertainment venues. Christmas – the time that institutions rely on for 40% of their annual income – was a wash out for the second year on the trot for most UK theatres. Omicron and Plan B turmoil emptied our auditoriums as audiences stayed home and creative teams self-isolated.

The industry continues to face insurmountable challenges. 

Nightclubs are shut in Wales
, with limits on hospitality, sports events and who people can meet.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the government has ordered capacities for seated indoor performances are cut to 200 and social distancing is back for at least three weeks.

In the past month, theatre producer Sonia Friedman has cancelled more than 158 shows and lost more than £4 million because of the continued uncertainty. “We are seeing drops in our box office of 25 and 50 per cent. There’s fear, despair and confusion all round,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “The government think we are OK but we are not.” 

Still, in ‘normal times’ live events are estimated to be worth £70 billion a year, yet the Culture Recovery Fund largely failed to reach freelancers, who do the work. The government continues to stand by. 

Pride and Prejudice* (sort of*

Last week, critic Dominic Maxwell presented a vital summary of the state of play, with producer of Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of*) David Pugh stating: “I don’t know how long we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.” The production will close in London next month and hopefully tour.

Meanwhile, in the same article, artistic director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted that the institution will have to dip into reserves after the covid-cursed musical Hex was cancelled multiple times and will end the current run without a press night. “We are recognising that it is going to be grim over the next couple of weeks. But we will do whatever we can to keep open.” Norris says. 

In London’s West End Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye states that the lack of a robust central, unified voice of information is leaving audiences and the industry beleaguered and baffled. “The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules daily basis…” he says. “Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”

Indeed, Julian Bird, the current chief executive of the SOLT and U.K. Theatre, has acknowledged his own gathering irrelevance by announcing he will step down from the position, effective May 2022.

Hex

Bird, who has been with the organisations since 2010, said: “It had always been my intention to think about moving on around the 10th anniversary of my time in the role, which would have been in November 2020. As with so much, the pandemic intervened in that.” 

Well, quite. 

Off West End, emerging work and young talent is once again under serious threat. Also last week, as you might have seen, The Vault Festival, an annual London fringe event was cancelled for the third year in a row. 

The Vaults is an essential part of the theatre ecology – roughly six hundred shows, featuring over 2,500 performances over several months – and is often a calling card for young, underrepresented, and diverse artists. The other benefits of appearing at the festival are incalculable. 

The official statement reads: “We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”

The VAULT Festival sign above one of the underground venues

Nevertheless, the generosity and offers of advice to those affected from some sections of the theatre community have been nothing short of inspiring. More please, folks.

I have been buoyed by scenes of understudies, swings and covers saving the day – and everyone who has kept theatre going against all odds in recent weeks. Pandemic heroes.

Anyway, let us hope that new medicines and stronger vaccines are reasons for real optimism. Spring will come around and *there is a chance that* 2022 will be the year we live alongside the virus – a hope for an industry so savaged by lockdowns and government abandon. 

If you or your show have been affected by anything mentioned in this blog, need advice or help do not hesitate to contact me: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com

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Top 5 Shows of 2021 (according to me)

2021. The year that tried to one-up 2020. Truly.

(I think being a neurotic, worrisome person slightly prepared me for it)

An extraordinary year for British theatre. Anyway, for my final blog of the last rollercoaster 12 months, I present my Top 5 shows of the year: 

1) Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club- Playhouse, London 

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club made every moment ring with significance and was brimming with menace and threat. Rebecca Frecknall’s starry and immersive production of the Kander and Ebb classic was, in short, theatre heaven. 

Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club / Marc Brenner

The in-the-round reconfiguration of London’s Playhouse theatre was kind of amazing. Eddie Redmayne as Emcee pulled the audience into a hedonistic milieu. 

Jessie Buckley’s vulnerable, edgy take reinvented Sally Bowles as a frightened and angry child. Then things got dark. 

A rising talent, Omari Douglas, shone. There’s also a wonderful performance from a pair of older actors as the ill-starred lovebirds Elliot Levey and Liza Sadovy as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

Alas, this was an unbelievable and electric occasion, only overshadowed by the sky-high £300 top-price tickets

Cabaret is at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October 2022

2) Anything Goes – The Barbican, London 

Broadway star Sutton Foster starring as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s classic musical at the Barbican was just what the doctor ordered. 

Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney / Tristram Kenton

Gorgeous songs and dance and feisty performances from a brilliant cast made the screwball plot into an enchanting musical escape. 

Anything Goes was of the most entertaining shows I have ever seen and going by standing ovations (plural), it was for everyone else around me, too.

Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who won a Tony for her 2011 Broadway staging, this new London production was a flat-out triumph. 

A lavish, joyful, and memorable piece of musical theatre, with solid turns from Robert Lindsay, Felicity Kendal and Gary Wilmot. 

Anything Goes is playing on BBC Two on Boxing Day at 6.40pm. 

3) South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre 

This was a glittering, intelligent and radical reappraisal of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Daniel Evans’s production burst with energy as it foreground an anti-racist message, it marked the return of theatre in superb style. 

The company of South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre / Johan Persson

A strong cast was led by Julian Ovenden as the plantation owner Emile de Becque, and a pregnant Gina Beck. Rarely had the drama of the score sounded more immediate or more moving.

Evans directed an enchanted, threatening evening.

South Pacific will embark on a UK tour in 2022. 

4) The Play What I Wrote – Bimingham Rep 

Tom Hiddleston at Birmingham Rep was one of the most compelling events of my theatre year.

The A-lister provided palpable shock on opening night of this madcap revival. In the play, tensions arise between double act Dennis and Thom, as their aspirations start to diverge. During act 2 a surprise guest star arrives to be roasted by the pair. 

Thom Tuck as Thom, Tom Hiddleston as himself, and Dennis Herdman as Dennis

In this case, Hiddleston proved to be an extremely good sport, (“You might have seen my Coriolanus?”) and putting on a pink and blue dress with bows and a hoop skirt, along with a baroque style wig as he danced across the stage. 

A heartwarming tribute to Morecambe and Wise – the play was co-written 20 years ago by Sean Foley – the show generated the kind of hysterical laughter of which our theatre has lately been starved. 

At Birmingham Rep until 1 January.

5) Our Ladies of Blundellsands – Liverpool Everyman

Jonathan Harvey’s deliciously dark play featured an impeccably excellent Josie Lawrence as an agoraphobic Merseyside Norma Desmond. Nick Bagnall’s production was fast-paced and very funny without losing the pathos of guilty family secrets. 

Tonally, Our Ladies of Blundellsands cut an elegant path between humour and pathos. 

Josie Lawrence in Our Ladies of Blundellsands

In a strong ensemble, it was fascinating to realise that it is Harvey’s sublime dark wit that sheds more light on human desperation than anything else – it also emerges as Liverpool’s most entertaining and moving play for years– you could feel how much the creative team loved the material.

Frankly, I felt the same way. 

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THERE were, however, three shows I wish I’d taken a hand grenade to: Frozen the Musical (Theme Park theatre), Carousel at Regents Park Open Air Theatre (Skiffle band), and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella (Creatively bankrupt). 

For me, this year has been many things, but as we say goodbye to 2021 let’s just choose to remember it as a load of shit with some decent theatre. 

Have a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year. 

Let’s see how 2022 pans out, shall we? Cue violins.

Carl x 

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Our industry is in crisis – again – the government must act now to save it

December 2021. 

A Covid tidal wave is crashing into us. Theatres are faced once again with critical and tough restrictions despite robust measures in place to keep their staff and audiences safe. The situation is dire and deteriorating.

The number of Covid cases reported on Wednesday was the highest yet during the pandemic. You read that right: the highest ever during these long two years. 

In the meantime, Twitter is just a series of cancellations scrolling across the screen while a voiceover recites the words “brink … precipice … abyss … void …” repeatedly.

Speaking of voids, Nadine Dorries has been charged with safeguarding the nation’s cultural heart at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Culture Wars Minister who once said lefties are “dumbing down panto”.  Nadine, despite several days of training on I’m A Celebrity for her new role, gives an immediate impression of total skulduggery. Where is she?

The RSC Matilda The Musical
The RSC Matilda The Musical

Like a section of cliff face crumbling into the sea, West End shows including Hamilton, The Lion King, Cabaret, Six and many more across the UK have had to cancel performances owing to variant Omicron outbreaks among cast and crew. This week the National Theatre cancelled a preview of its Christmas show Hex, which is based on Sleeping Beauty, after one of its lead actors caught Covid.

In a statement, the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris, wrote: “You will no doubt be aware of the impact that Covid has been having on productions across the industry (none of ours over the last year have escaped entirely) but the impact on Hex has been considerable, with several members of the company including one of our leads being taken ill during the technical and preview period, and fresh bad news on that front again today.”

The government is frightening everyone into staying home but not providing support for affected businesses.

Our post-apocalyptic Prime Minister’s shambolic messaging (“Think carefully before you go…”) is costing the entertainment and hospitality industry billions of pounds during a period that should nurture audiences, provides work for freelancers and enable venues’ other activities. 

Even so, no additional support has yet been offered to the sector. Without intervention, we’ll lose more talent as well as theatres. And everyone seems angry, all the time. Hell, one audience member was handcuffed and arrested during an Adam Kay show at Rose Theatre on Tuesday night after he refused to wear a mask properly. 

Dear dear.

Vital industries continue to be let down. Again. When grilled on the ongoing ineptitude the government point to their ‘unprecedented support’ for the culture sector through the £2bn culture recovery fund. That money has long been and continues to be burnt through. 

The crisis is far from over; it seems unfathomable that the abandoning of restrictions on so-called Freedom Day and 20 months of Covid chaos has left us at five minutes to midnight. But here we are.

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Cabaret, review: the show of a lifetime


Stunningly designed by Tom Scutt, London’s Playhouse Theatre is transformed into the Kit Kat Club – and Eddie Redmayne is its emcee – for this jaw dropping – expensive (the lowest price in the top two ticket price bands is £120)- production.

Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in ‘Cabaret’
(Marc Brenner)

In this grand, in the round space, these Kander and Ebb songs recall, rather strangely, the toughest emotional moments of opera, and powerfully re-render them.

The devil is in the detail.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more demented Emcee. I fell headfirst into Redmayne’s shape-shifting approach here. There was a strange menace to his otherworldly appearance, standing alone, facial features altered by extraordinary makeup.

In his party hat and Bowie attire, Redmayne resembles some kind of pale, alien clown being. Staking the stalls and swinging from the circle – you can’t take your eyes off the Oscar winner. His crumpled physicality is a marvel. 

Like a first-rate evil clown, he twists his impish body and tongue around the slippery role. He also has a beautiful singing voice.

Eddie Redmayne as Emcee / Marc Brenner

This A list casting might have triggered a frenzy, but make no mistake, this is director Rebecca Frecknall’s production — and it’s a radical reinvention with real political intent. Each possibility is laid out with complete clarity and assessed.

Her Cabaret is one of the most visually and atmospherically expressionistic productions I’ve ever seen, of anything, ever. The creative team’s theatrical ambitions are astute and dense.

Mind you, supporting cast (including an outstanding Anna Jane Casey as Fraulein Kost) may have big names to lean on but they make it look effortless; everyone is on magisterial form.

With Liza Minnelli erased from memory and Fosse’s iconic choreography stripped from this production, the audience are forced to confront the dark heart of the material. Julia Cheng’s twitchy choreography sweeps over the stage in waves. The gender-fluid ensemble frequently make you gasp. 

Omari Douglas and Jessie Buckley / Marc Brenner

Sardonic, seductive, uniquely done. This Cabaret is an distinctive, shattering, deeply humane evening. It is also genuinely cathartic, in the great, transcendent tradition of classic tragedy.

In a superb piece of acting, Jessie Buckley plays an anti-Sally Bowles; her subdued rock star approach to ‘Maybe This Time’ reduces the audience to hushed awe. But her voice rings out clear and she in total command.

Buckley gives her character a bewitching vulnerable finish that makes Sally both more life-size and broken than she’s ever been before. Her nervous breakdown performance of title song ‘Cabaret’ is distressing to watch.

Her voice is full of charm and hurt, an elemental howl that appears to affect the fabric of time. Towards the end, she roars with unruly splendour. 

Omari Douglas plays Cliff / Marc Brenner

But Omari Douglas! Holy smoke, what an actor! It would be easy to forget he is up on stage amidst the pandemonium and moments of rising fascism. But keep looking up, because occasionally there will be a scene he is in, and Douglas will be up there on the stage, apparently doing not much more than speak. Douglas gently presents the bisexual American novelist, Clifford Bradshaw.

As it is, the fact this triumphant production has been achieved 20 months into an ongoing medical emergency is nothing short of miraculous. 

Kind of amazing, I came out stunned into submission, admiring the musical more than ever: the accustomed world had shifted.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October 2022.

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Stephen Sondheim was a genius – we shall not see his like again

I never thought Stephen Sondheim would die.

Oh, I know we all do eventually, but he carried with him such an aura of invincibility that if anyone could cheat the passage of time, I assumed it would be musical theatre’s God. (The New York Times even once ran a story on the phenomenon, asking if Sondheim and God had ever been seen in the same place).

Sondheim, the maestro who reinvented musical theatre has passed at his home in Connecticut suddenly at 91.

His attorney, F. Richard Pappas, also confirmed the composer’s death: “The day before, Mr. Sondheim had celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner with friends in Roxbury,” Pappas said in a written statement. “And he spent all day Wednesday seeing the matinee and evening performances of Dana H and Is This a Room — doing what he most loved to do.”

West End theatres will dim their lights on Monday 29 November at 7.00pm for 2 minutes. This tradition is reserved for the industry’s most celebrated figures and last occurred over here in 2018, following the death of trailblazing choreographer Gillian Lynne.  

In truth, what mattered to Sondheim, widely considered the most influential composer-lyricist in the American musical theatre of the 20th century, was his art, in all its guises. His legacy is eternal.

Stephen Sondheim

Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park), an Academy Award (for the song Sooner or Later from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. 

He was born into a Jewish family in New York City, and his career began in the 1950s, a decade in which he wrote the lyrics for Broadway classics Gypsy and West Side Story. For his fans, his audience, this is a moment of infinite sorrow. 

Looking back, I finally got Sondheim musicals– there’s cynicism, endless philosophy, and pure emotion in his work – when I turned thirty.

Seeing Dominic Cooke’s Follies and Marianne Elliott’s gender flipped Company within months of each other, it’s fair to say, hit me during a life affirming period of reflection and recalibration. 

The West End company of Company
© Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Think of modern musicals like Hamilton and even Fun Home and you’ll find the composers owe their style, as well as the roof over their head and the food on the table, to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. 

All in all, losing Sondheim in 2021 is all the more surprising after he so joyously attended the current revival Company on Broadway earlier this month. A ripple of murmurs and a rapturous standing ovation greeted the masked nonagenarian as he emerged from a side entrance shortly before showtime, walking along the fifth row to his aisle seat. 

Stephen Sondheim attends Company on Broadway

He was a keen teacher and mentor and used his talent always to make a difference. Art isn’t easy.

I asked Robbie Rozelle, A&R Director at Broadway Records for a few words on Sondheim’s legacy and impact. He said: “Taking the foundation that Oscar Hammerstein laid for him, Sondheim proceeded to become the greatest architect of musicals. He was also an important teacher, who worked with people to stretch the form even further – Jonathan Larson, Jason Robert Brown, so many. He was the bridge between the Golden Age of musicals and the new form of musical, and what a beautiful bridge he was.”

Sondheim was also generous with his time, and with his encouragement, just very, very giving. 

An unsurpassed musical theatre super-hero. 

In short, he was an insightful, shrewd operator who could spot a contradiction at 50 paces. The irony of this, and the debt we all owe him, is not lost on me. He is survived by his husband, Jeffrey Scott Romley, whom he married in 2017.

“You have to work on something that makes you uncertain – something that makes you doubt yourself,” 

“If you know where you’re going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death,” Sondheim said in 2017.

I’d like to propose a toast. Stephen Joshua Sondheim, may peace be upon you.

Steve

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane is incredible and scary as hell

What a triumph for the National Theatre to make a riveting nightmare out of this long-anticipated transfer.

Two years after The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s first staging, Neil Gaiman’s dark fairy-tale has returned, this time to the West End. 

The story from Gaiman’s award-winning book is about the escape a lonely child finds in fantasy worlds. In one of many extraordinary moments during Katy Rudd’s haunting production, the stage becomes a playground for the imagination. Anything can come to life; anything can be transformed. It is also occasionally unbearably chilling and poignant.

Leading the production, James Bamford as the Boy is commanding – at times heart-rending – as the distressed, gawky 12-year-old hero who is plunged into a confrontation with a wicked witch in his own home, screeching monsters and flapping creatures. Nia Towle is dynamic as Lettie, the farm girl who becomes his guiding friend. The magical realism is a pure spectacle. 

Nia Towle (Lettie Hempstock) and James Bamford (the Boy) / Manuel Harlan

Elsewhere, Nicolas Tennant as the Dad movingly portrays the messily human emotions of a family bereavement and subsequent trauma. The 16-strong cast work effortlessly to realise a slick and polished ensemble performance. Extraordinary moments abound. 

How do you stage unfurling forests, tunnels, witches, snapping demons, and action-packed drama so effortlessly? With the help of Joel Horwood’s nimble adaptation, a terrific team has found the way.  

Every small thing is beautiful; the creative team are chef’s kiss. Ian Dixon’s sound design turns innocent noises into explosions. In a triumph of theatricality, movement director Steven Hoggett, composer Jherek Bischoff and lighting designer Paule Constable pull out all the stops to ensure that the production soars; the dreamlike storytelling becomes the arena that the Boy makes his own. All this ensures that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a triumphant theatre event. 

The disparate and menacing electric 80s music by composer Jherek Bischoff deftly underscores the journey of a man returning to his childhood home, and is a work of art. Taken as a suite of music on its own merits, The Ocean at the End of the Lane‘s official soundtrack flows rather seamlessly—no small achievement.  Perhaps the most deft and frightening as hell touch is the use of synths to mimic a vaguely inhuman howling. 

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Sometimes a show comes along that is so inventive that you just can’t help but be in awe of everyone involved. Separating the very good from the excellent moments in Rudd’s dreamlike production is almost impossible. Fly Davis’s set has benches, doorways and props popping amongst a beautiful series of tunnels and abstract backdrops.

I should also say that I am delighted that west end theatre is waking up to the notion that it should take advantage of the great blossoming of children’s literature in the last few years – and by doing so luring in a new generation of theatre-goers.

If you have the chance, make sure you get along to the show because it is visually thrilling, moving and extremely special.  

The Ocean at the End of the Lane runs at the Duke of York’s theatre, London, until 14 May 2022. 

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Review: The Shark is Broken is a wonderfully aquatic account of masculinity

How good is The Shark is Broken? It is quite good.

I admire it; partly because its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great melancholy, partly because it has the whiplash exactness of the best Edinburgh Fringe shows plus a good deal of intellectual resonance.

The Shark is Broken offers a glimpse at the overwrought relationship between the three stars of Steven Spielberg’s iconic 1975 film Jaws. Ian Shaw plays his own dad Robert who starred as Quint in the original blockbuster.

(from left) Ian Shaw (Robert Shaw), Demetri Goritsas (Roy Scheider) and Liam Murray Scott (Richard Dreyfuss) in The Shark Is Broken. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

And while things looked great on the screen, behind the scenes, the lead actors were trapped in a notorious feud; in addition, the mechanical sharks repeatedly broke down – something that inspired the play’s title.

As a film, it has been interpreted as everything from a depiction of masculinity in crisis to a post-Watergate paranoid parable about rotten bureaucracy. 

Guy Masterson’s production provides a new perspective on Spielberg’s film in this brooding, intelligent show. Shaw’s portrayal of his own father is bittersweet and tender.  

Staging it, however, poses problems, most of which Masterson’s production overcomes. The fishing boat to which the story is confined sits glossily on Nina Dunn’s video ocean backdrop. Surprisingly, the effect works. 

Meanwhile, Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s dialogue throughout is snappy and, crucially, hilarious when it counts. About Spielberg’s next picture, Roberts scoffs: “Aliens? What next, dinosaurs?”. 

Across the play’s 90-minute running time, addiction, love, regret, life, ambition, and masculinity are all unpacked and peppered between mock filming of the classic film. It felt to me that the shark off-screen becomes the means of exposing the men’s rootlessness, insecurity, and uncertain sense of self.

Their reservations about the blockbuster’s potential and anxiety over the inexperience of the young director play right into the mysterious nature of popular culture. And although there are few subtexts here, the portrayal of abrasive masculinity is all too recognisable and yet, in these fine performances, sympathetic and resonant.

Overall, the final impression of the making of Jaws is of frustration and emotion behind a posturing feud. It may take place in the past, but it says something that will always be current about our quest for meaning in a world in which it sometimes feels like that which we used to believe in and rely on no longer comforts us in the same way. 

Liam Murray Scott (Richard Dreyfuss), Ian Shaw (Robert Shaw), Demetri Goritsas (Roy Scheider)

I only hope the inventive work, which has just extended to 13 February 2022, gets through to the popular audience it deserves. Crucially, it’s a special play. 

The Shark is Broken runs at Ambassadors Theatre, London until 13 February 2022 

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David Hare’s self absorption is simply overwhelming

October 2021.

Plan B is on the table, domestic shortages galore and we are literally up Shit Creek without a paddle.

On Sunday, though, I read an article in the Observer about playwright David Hare being furious at the BBC after it rejected his Covid play Beat The Devil – starring Ralph Fiennes. Not a euphemism.

The monologue brought to life by Academy Award®, Golden Globe® and BAFTA® nominee Ralph Fiennes details Hare’s experience with Covid-19, during which he lost 8kg in a week.

Also, Fiennes is set to play New York City power broker Robert Moses in the London world premiere of writer David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy at Bridge Theatre, London next year.

What are the chances then, I wondered, of millionaire Hare being furious that the BBC rejected his Covid monologue.

A sure bet, apparently,

“I am being silenced” said Hare in an interview to promote his autobiographical work.

Ralph Fiennes and Sir David Hare

Which is a bit rich coming from a bloke who has been commissioned by the National Theatre three times over the past five years.

“Everyone was very keen on the show at the BBC until it went upstairs. Suddenly, mysteriously, something they were very keen to show, they became less keen to show.

The BBC declined to comment.

He continued: “Anyone who saw Jack Thorne’s film Help, about the care home crisis, will know that actually you can make very timely and urgent work about Covid-19 and people will want to watch it.”

MOAN MOAN MOAN MOAN.

And yet it seems all is not lost for the state of the nation scribe, Beat The Devil is being broadcast by Sky Arts on November 11.

Confused? Don’t be.

It is called PR. At the heart of it all, this flight of fancy is nothing more than an over-entitled and fragile ego-driven response to rejection.

Broadcasting house is right to pass.

Certainly, Hare often takes aim at the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers and their systematic failings … And we now know Britain’s early handling of the ongoing pandemic was one of the worst public health failures in UK history.

How those of us who have survived the past year
and not concluded that we all deserved much, much better from the government I still don’t know. Yet its deeply healthy approval ratings suggest that British people didn’t think they did.

If you want to catch a real decent gem of Covid drama watch Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy let rip in the 90 minute two hander tour de force Together on BBC IPlayer – a sensational compression of lockdown hell.

Anyway, Hare performed a public service; I haven’t felt a sector roll eyes like this for ages.

Beat The Devil is on Sky Arts on November 11

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National Youth Theatre and Contact, Manchester: Putting young people centre stage

With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby
With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby

In this age of extremes, I often find myself at the sharp end of funding squeezes, local authority cuts, and am continually alarmed by the devastating demise of arts in our state schools.

As you can imagine, it truly depresses me. 

So, I was delighted to be invited to a soft-launch of the National Youth Theatre’s award-worthy £4m refurbished premises on Holloway Road.

The National Youth Theatre’s HQ, Holloway Road, London

The organisation nurtured Daniel Craig, Helen Mirren, Zawe Ashton and many more of our theatre legends.

Speaking at the supporters event, dynamic NYT CEO and Artistic Director Paul Roseby said: “Cuts to the arts in our state schools have led to a significant pressure on organisations like ours that work with young people to bridge the gap. What’s going on across these revitalised spaces here are all about giving young people the chance to start again. Failure is what we are about, and we embrace that as much as success.”

He continued: “If you are a youth organisation you have to stick your neck out; it’s now more important than ever before.” 

Certainly, school reforms have caused pupils to move away from arts subjects such as dance, music and art, and towards more traditional academic subjects such as geography and English. What’s more, recent analysis of government data shows that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade.

Outside the M25, Manchester’s Contact Theatre on Oxford Road, closed in 2017 but has also just reopened following a £6m ‘youth led’ revamp. 

First established as a theatre in 1972, in 1999 Contact reinvented itself as a multi-disciplinary creative space specialising in producing work with, and providing opportunities for, young people aged 13 to 30. 

Contact Young Company, Everything All of the Time

What’s so brilliant about Contact is under Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Matt Fenton, this significant refurbishment was led by a dedicated team of young people at Contact – who had their say on everything from light fittings to consultations with the architects.  

Speaking at the Press Night of Contact Young Company’s excellent show Everything All of the Time, Fenton said: “Young people should have access to free, high-quality and world-class creative resources to express themselves, to find their politics, find themselves and to then go out into the world and do amazing things. Contact has always done that, but this building now allows us to do that at such a higher level.” 

The iconic Contact, Oxford Road in Manchester

There has been a radical growth in the knowledge economy and creative industries over the past decade. It goes without saying that an education that includes creative subjects facilitates critical thinking and increases emotional resilience.

Quite simply, it is a proven fact how small investments return massively more than was spent and the cultural impact it has on our children is huge. What might a viable, authentic, enduring kind of ‘levelling up’ look like?

Nobody I speak to understands what it means – despite the government’s levelling-up fund of £4.8bn, and places now bidding for help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”. 

Anyway, according to a recent report UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre cultural organisations across the UK save the NHS £102 million a year thanks to the physical and mental health benefits to attendees.

Remarkably, the report found that the NHS saves a yearly total of £11.91 for every person partaking in such an activity, from a reduction in GP visits and use of psychotherapy services.

But as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the National Youth Theatre and Contact investing in these spaces for the next generation of dramatic talent offers us all hope. I left both occasions feeling a sense of optimism that I had not felt for some years.

There is an overwhelming sense, too, that we are at a turning point and that the arts can and must play a leading role in developing talent, protecting communities, as well as in fighting cuts in higher education and cultural education in schools.

It demonstrates, quite pertinently, that in order avoid widening inequality of access to the arts, that theatres across the country must enact their civic duty – not only to plug the gaps, but to truly level up every part of the UK.

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Bat out of Hell rocks Manchester Opera House

Bat Out of Hell is the first big musical to be staged at the theatre and it’s a night of delirious entertainment.

It’s a tale of unrequited love from different sides of the track, with a parent determined to keep them apart. Story wise, it is post-apocalyptic Peter Pan.

Jay Scheib’s totally electrifying production re-imagines the jukebox musical for these mad times.

If you saw the show in London you won’t be disappointed –  the flames, the cameras circling the stage, the video screen capturing and magnifying the action are all here. There’s no expense spared.

What’s more, this talented and vibrant cast navigate the luminescent and fast-paced production with high stamina and real flair. The songs are gloriously sung and the occasion allows everyone to let their hair down.

Glenn Adamson and Martha Kirby lead as Strat and Raven respectively, and are electric together. 

Glenn Adamson and Martha Kirby

Incredibly, Meatloaf’s three Bat Out Of Hell albums have sold a staggering 100 million copies globally. This lively and quirky show has been perfectly reconfigured for a UK Tour and features all the hits: Out Of Hell, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.

Jim Steinman’s soaring rock n roll anthems and Jon Bausor’s anarchic designs offer an extravagant sense of occasion, as well as a show with extremely high production values. The lighting and sound are world class here. 

It was great to see people having fun, and this high voltage and good-natured mega show is the perfect tonic to reinvigorate regional theatres and attract audiences back after a miserable 21 months. 

Vegas? Don’t bet against it. 

Bat Out of Hell runs at Manchester Opera House until 2 October and tours the UK through to November 2022.