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Theatre tickets: who can afford them in 2024?

The price for the most expensive tickets for plays in the West End has reached £200, according to an annual survey by The Stage – the average top-priced West End ticket was £154.56, compared with £141.37 in 2023.

For now, a quick refresher. A YouGov poll in March found that the most common reason for people to not visit the theatre was the cost of tickets.

Yup, three plays in London – including Romeo and Juliet starring Tom Holland – are charging more than £200 for their most expensive seat. And with top prices for plays up 50% on average, they are fast approaching the same level as musicals.

But how is that revenue being distributed?

Elsewhere, the average cheapest West End ticket cost £24.58, a 3.4% decrease compared with last year. But these cheap seats are often cramped, restricted and depressing viewing.

News that deserved neither fanfare nor any spoiler alert because we’ve all seen what has been going on with rip off premium West End prices. At a basic level I think most of us want transparency. I’d also love to see some of these profit making machines – that invest nothing in UK culture – doing more for hard-pressed communities surrounding their buildings and freelancers. And so say all of us.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that no sooner had I read this news Society of London Theatre (SOLT) board member and producer Patrick Gracey had written a tetchy piece for The Stage stating that anyone who used their platform ‘to misattribute exclusivity do a disservice to both the sector and to the audiences they claim to champion by perpetuating myths and misconceptions’. Hmm.

Real life is more complicated than that, as is real theatreland. I sometimes wonder if I am in the minority of people who want theatre to break out of the confines of middle class entertainment. To reflect the entire country. And reflect the complex changes that are happening; most people don’t have much disposable income these days.

Anyhow. Gracey went on to enlighten us that staging a play often exceeds £1 million, with weekly operating  costs between £120,000 and £200,000. Musicals can require an initial investment of £3 million to £10 million, and weekly costs of £300,000 to £400,000.

The fewer people that speak out about elitist ticket prices, the more unbearably self-important and pleased with itself the West End becomes.

This week, producers of musical Operation Mincemeat, winner of 2024 Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards, decided to unveil new flat prices of £89.50 at multiple performances. 

For someone on an average full-time national salary, which in 2024 is £34,963, that trip for themselves and a partner to see Operation Mincemeat would represent around one quarter of their weekly income.

Frankly, this seems like a short-sighted kick in the teeth for young loyal fans who got the fringe show where it is today. Operation Mincemeat is now beyond the reach of all but the affluent. A total fiasco.

The paying audience enters as an individual but becomes part of a unique communal event, a sort of tangled community. But look, the future will be bleak for drama if the young and the low-paid are excluded from that mix. 

By way of illustration in as even-handed a way as possible, a recent survey by Norwich Theatre showed that one in four British people have never attended a theatrical performance.

And 24% of 2,000 people surveyed had never been to see a show at the theatre, however 55% of respondents said that lower ticket prices would encourage their attendance. The research also found that those from London are almost twice as likely to attend the theatre every two to three months (12%) than those in the West Midlands (5%), Scotland (7%) or Wales (6%). 

Theatre is where we can and should all be able to ponder the past and imagine the future.

So I end this blog with a challenge: if any readers are able to get to the bottom of why West End Landlords such as Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber — whose wealth vastly increased since 2023, according to the recent Sunday Times Rich List — sanction these ticket prices without impunity, then I urge them to write in.

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Jack Bradfield: “If you make too many adjustments too quickly, you can fly the plane out of cloud cover upside down.”

It was 2018. I was at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and I went along to Pleasance Dome to watch an alien themed show called Lights Over Tesco Car Parkdirected by Jack Bradfield. 

He is Artistic Director of Poltergeist, and trained on the Royal Court Writers’ Group 2017. 

Anyway, Lights Over Tesco Car Park was a festival highlight, and I often think about how engaging and smart it was.

Flash forward over half a decade and Bradfield has won the Sir Peter Hall Director award and we are talking on the telephone.

How has his May been, I ask. “My May has been really eventful,” he declares. “I’m working on Robert Icke’s Player Kings in the West End as Associate Director. I suppose I am at that point in most freelance director’s careers where you are juggling about seven projects or ideas and checking which ones are going to progress and which ones you are going to have to put in the back drawer for a little while,” he says. 

“Suddenly you get broad, and you start thinking about lots of different ideas,” he says. “Of course, I’m starting my prep for Abigail’s Party, which I am really thrilled about. It’s really exciting.” 

More on that in a second. 

First, though, Bradfield has been selected from eight finalists for the 2023 prize, that is awarded by the Royal Theatrical Support Trust. The fantastic annual award, named in recognition of the RTST co-founder and Royal Shakespeare Company founder Hall, offer its winner the chance to direct a fully funded production in a UK regional theatre, as part of its main season, prior to taking that production out on tour.

Bradfield will now direct Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party for Northern Stage’s main stage, with the support of the venue’s artistic director Natalie Ibu

The application process, he says, was exhilarating. “I directed two actors in front of a panel, which is where that process leads you up to. It was a big gauntlet to throw down; negotiating a room when you’re the director but there are ten panel members,” he says. “The flipside of the process being rigorous is the confidence that you want to direct the full show.”

“I’d say apply, apply, apply, I’d also say pick the plays you’ve always loved. Because I loved the play I loved the process,” he adds.

In any case, this brilliant accolade provides an emerging director with a first-time, career- opportunity to originate and direct a fully funded production as part of a main season of plays at a mid-scale British regional theatre and to take that production on tour to other mid-scale regional theatres. 

On Lights Over Tesco Car Park, he says that he learned that you must keep going and working on the work that you want to make. “Having that friendship was such a blessing because it was a topic and a world and a way of making theatre myself and the Poltergeist collective were so excited about. The thing it really made me do is to go back to my craft. And that is useful. Because it sharpens how you direct and what you can make,” Bradfield recalls.

What are his creative reference points for directing theatre? “I have a few little mantras. Such as if you make too many adjustments too quickly, you can fly the plane out of cloud cover upside down,” Bradfield says. He pauses. “Sometimes it’s about a slow process, arriving at things that you want to make and not feeling like you must rush.”

He says that he is looking forward to making an Abigail’s Party with heart and humanity: “I think Abigail’s Party is ripe with contemporary resonance.”

“I also think it is a fascinating play to work with because it has been preserved in aspic slightly. The BBC Play for Today production is fantastic. Yet at the same time what that does is it preserve a version. Everyone knows it and can quote it to you. What is a real gift for this play is that it feels like a moment to explode it a bit and see how it speaks to now.”

And with that, a play that he has been working on for years, The Habits, is announced as part of Hampstead Theatre’s Autumn and Winter 2024/5 season.

It’s clear that Jack represents what RTST stands for as the future of the theatre industry, embodying innovation, dedication to audiences outside the M25 and a commitment to storytelling that captivates audiences.

I’m a believer.

Abigail’s Party runs 13-28 September at Northern Stage and then tours

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Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York)

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) is agreeable enough – it’s rather sweet actually.

Set in New York, this festive caper is far from a work of art, but it’s a superior musical comedy, well written by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan and directed tactfully, by Tim Jackson.

First produced in 2018 in Northampton as The Season, reimagined last year at London’s Kiln Theatre, this upbeat show is now running at the Criterion Theatre, London until 31 August.

What holds this musical together is the warmth supplied by the two performers. Brit Dougal (Sam Tutty) has flown to the Big Apple for a 36-hour trip to attend dad’s wedding (whom he has never met). New York barista Robin (Dujonna Gift) is sister of the bride, his new step aunt. She has a great voice and an excellent counter to Tutty’s excitement. 

It is all good fun. Played with even more conviction it could be great fun.

Imagine a Richard Curtis movie combined with A Christmas Carol, and you get the general picture. Yet there is a sense here the creators are doing something more interesting than just adapting a popular movie for nostalgia. 

Jackson’s production and suitcase set and costumes by Soutra Gilmour ushers us into the syrupy world and skilfully allows the songs to seem part of an extended conversation. Honestly, I didn’t like the set at all. But that’s that. 

It seems churlish to grumble when so much of this show, with its entertaining book, hits the mark.

Tutty’s motor runs a little fast. As an actor, he has a singular smartness that takes the form of speed; he’s always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker responsiveness makes him more exciting to watch. His grin could melt stone, and he and Gift are a magical pair. 

There are charming numbers about online dating, and a drunken night of ice-skating when the couple go rogue with the groom’s platinum credit card, “hitchin’ a ride on the American Express”. Most memorable is Tutty’s tender, tear-jerking song-warning to eager Dougal that, like the father’s in classic Christmas films, fathers “always seem bigger and better from farther away”. Poignant. 

Anyway, our emotions rise to meet the force coming down from the stage, and they go on rising throughout. The end is subdued. It would have been better with the last quarter lopped off. 

As I sat in the Criterion Theatre watching middle-aged men and women alike wiping away a tear, it was evident that, for all its flaws, the musical had indeed delivered.
The tears are the tokens of gratitude for the spell the production has put on the audience.

In short, a feel-good show that captures magic of New York City without exploding the concept, I suspect Barne and Buchan’s likeable musical will have a long life.

Two Strangers (Carry A Cake Across New York) runs until 31 August 2024

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Cabaret on Broadway – what went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, life is disappointing? Err! Forget it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s great news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, no it is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has the hour of need ever been greater?

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

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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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Olivier Awards predictions 2024: who will win, who should win

Is Sunset Boulevard a lock across the board? Does Little Big Things have a chance?

Sheridan Smith, Nicole Scherzinger, Sarah Snook, James Norton and Andrew Scott are among the big names whose West End work during the past 12 months has today won them Olivier nominations.

Sunset Boulevard, starring Scherzinger, leads the pack with 11 nominations for Jamie Lloyd’s radical revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical.

No big surprises here this year, folks: it’s been an exceptional year for shows, from the excellent A Strange Loop to the wonderful Sondheim Old Friends concert. 

Yet the vast majority of the awards class show up dutifully while claiming to loathe it. 

Before we go on, 100% of the nominees for the Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director are men Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin for Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Rupert Goold for Dear England, Jamie Lloyd for Sunset Boulevard and Sam Mendes for The Motive & The Cue

Yup, a recent ‘The Women in Theatre survey’found that only 6% of respondents believe there has been an increase in opportunities for women in the sector since a previous survey in 2021.

Alas, despite the dominance of men in every profession in theatre, there seems to be no strategy to address it. 

Still, bravo to Rufus Norris for The National Theatre’s 15 nominations in total, including three of the four best new play nods for The Motive and the Cue, Till The Stars Come Down and Dear England.

But I have to say that Jamie Lloyd’s richly powerful and unashamedly alien melodrama Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Scott’s one-man Vanya and the brilliant Operation Mincemeat gets my support — and I suspect that of Olivier Award voters as well.

Certainly, I am delighted that Haydn Gwynne has been posthumously nominated for her role in When Winston Went To War With The Wireless at Donmar Warehouse, too. 

Anyway, here are my predictions for the biggest night in British Theatre.

The Olivier Awards 2024 with Mastercard will be on April 14 at the Royal Albert Hall.

Full list of nominations (plus who will win, who should win)

Noël Coward Award for Best New Entertainment or Comedy Play

Accidental Death Of An Anarchist by Dario Fo & Franca Rame, adapted by Tom Basden at the Lyric Hammersmith & Theatre Royal Haymarket

Should win: Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim at the Gielgud Theatre

Will win: Stranger Things: The First Shadow by Kate Trefry at the Phoenix Theatre

Vardy V Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial, adapted by Liv Hennessy at the Ambassadors Theatre

Best Family Show

Bluey’s Big Play by Joe Brumm at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall

Dinosaur World Live by Derek Bond at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Should win: The House With Chicken Legs, book by Sophie Anderson, adapted by Oliver Lansley at

Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall

Will win: The Smeds And The Smoos, book by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler, adapted by Tall

Stories at the Lyric Theatre

Gillian Lynne Award for Best Theatre Choreographer

Will win: Fabian Aloise for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Ellen Kane & Hannes Langolf for Dear England at  the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Arlene Phillips with James Cousins for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Mark Smith for The Little Big Things at @sohoplace

Should win: Susan Stroman for Crazy For You at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Mithridate Award for Best Costume Design

Bunny Christie & Deborah Andrews for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Ryan Dawson Laight for La Cage Aux Folles at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Should win / will win: Hugh Durrant for Peter Pan at The London Palladium

Marg Horwell for The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Cunard Best Revival

The Effect by Lucy Prebble at the National Theatre – Lyttelton

Macbeth by William Shakespeare at the Donmar Warehouse

Should win: Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Will win: Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Simon Stephens at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Best Musical Revival

Groundhog Day, music & lyrics by Tim Minchin, book by Danny Rubin at The Old Vic

Should win: Guys & Dolls, music & lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Jo Swerling & Abe Burrows at the Bridge Theatre

Hadestown, music, lyrics & book by Anaïs Mitchell at the Lyric Theatre

Will win: Sunset Boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics & book by Don Black & Christopher Hampton at the Savoy Theatre

d&b audiotechnik Award for Best Sound Design

Paul Arditti for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Will win: Dan Balfour & Tom Gibbins for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Adam Fisher for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Should win:Gareth Fry for Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse

Outstanding Musical Contribution

Tom Brady for Musical Supervision & Arrangements and Charlie Rosen for Orchestrations for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Matt Brind for Musical Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations for Just For One Day at The Old Vic

Should win: Steve Sidwell for Orchestrations & Joe Bunker for Musical Direction for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Will win: Alan Williams for Musical Supervision & Musical Direction for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Will Close for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Should win: Paul Hilton for An Enemy Of The People at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Will win: Giles Terera for Clyde’s at the Donmar Warehouse

Luke Thompson for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Zubin Varla for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Lorraine Ashbourne for Till The Stars Come Down at the National Theatre – Dorfman

Priyanga Burford for An Enemy Of The People at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Should win / will win: Haydn Gwynne for When Winston Went To War With The Wireless at the Donmar Warehouse

Gina McKee for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier

Tanya Reynolds for A Mirror at the Almeida Theatre & Trafalgar Theatre

Blue-i Theatre Technology Award for Best Set Design

Will win: Miriam Buether for Set Design & 59 Productions for Video Design for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Should win: Bunny Christie for Set Design for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Es Devlin for Set Design & Ash J Woodward for Video Design for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Soutra Gilmour for Set Design and Nathan Amzi & Joe Ransom for Video Design for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

White Light Award for Best Lighting Design

Jon Clark for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Jon Clark for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Paule Constable for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Should win / Will win: Jack Knowles for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Best Actress in a Supporting Role In a Musical

Should win: Grace Hodgett Young for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Zoë Roberts for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Will win: Amy Trigg for The Little Big Things at @sohoplace

Eleanor Worthington-Cox for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

Best Actor in a Supporting Role In a Musical

Jak Malone for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Cedric Neal for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Should win / Will winDavid Thaxton for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Jack Wolfe for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

TAIT Award for Best New Opera Production

Should win: Blue by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Innocence by the Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House

Picture A Day Like This by the Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House – Linbury Theatre

Will win: The Rhinegold by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Outstanding Achievement in Opera

Antonio Pappano for his role as Musical Director of the Royal Opera House

Should win: Belarus Free Theatre Company for King Stakh’s Wild Hunt at the Barbican Theatre

Will win: Marina Abramović for her concept and design of 7 Deaths Of Maria Callas at the London Coliseum

Best Actor in a Musical

David Cumming for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Should win: Tom Francis for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Daniel Mays for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Will win: Charlie Stemp for Crazy For You at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Best Actress in a Musical

Should win: Natasha Hodgson for Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre

Caissie Levy for Next To Normal at the Donmar Warehouse

Will win: Nicole Scherzinger for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Marisha Wallace for Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre

Unusual Rigging Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre

Will win: Blue Mist by Mohamed-Zain Dada at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre

Should win: A Playlist For The Revolution by AJ Yi at the Bush Theatre

Sleepova by Matilda Feyişayo at the Bush Theatre

The Swell by Isley Lynn at the Orange Tree Theatre

The Time Machine: A Comedy by Steven Canny and John Nicholson at the Park Theatre

Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director

Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin for Stranger Things: The First Shadow at the Phoenix Theatre

Rupert Goold for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Will win: Jamie Lloyd for Sunset Boulevard at the Savoy Theatre

Should win: Sam Mendes for The Motive And The Cue at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

Best Actress

Should win: Laura Donnelly for The Hills Of California at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Sophie Okonedo for Medea at @sohoplace

Will win: Sarah Jessica Parker for Plaza Suite at the Savoy Theatre

Sheridan Smith for Shirley Valentine at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

Sarah Snook for The Picture Of Dorian Gray at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Best Actor

Joseph Fiennes for Dear England at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

Mark Gatiss for The Motive And The Cue at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

James Norton for A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre & Savoy Theatre

Should win / Will win: Andrew Scott for Vanya at the Duke Of York’s Theatre

David Tennant for Macbeth at the Donmar Warehouse

The Londoner Award for Best New Play

Dear England by James Graham at the National Theatre – Olivier & Prince Edward Theatre

The Hills Of California by Jez Butterworth at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Will win: The Motive And The Cue by Jack Thorne at the National Theatre – Lyttelton & Noël Coward Theatre

Should win: Till The Stars Come Down by Beth Steel at the National Theatre – Dorfman

Mastercard Best New Musical

The Little Big Things, music by Nick Butcher, lyrics by Nick Butcher & Tom Ling, book by Joe White at @sohoplace

Next To Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey at the Donmar Warehouse

Will win: Operation Mincemeat, music, lyrics & book by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson & Zoë Roberts at the Fortune Theatre

Should win: A Strange Loop, music, lyrics & book by Michael R. Jackson at the Barbican Theatre

Is Sunset Boulevard a lock across the board? Does Little Big Things have a chance?
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Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Gillian Lynne Theatre, London

I tend to think very associatively, so for me the reflexive way of making sense of a lot of theatre things is by using references to other things. (Upon viewing the musical in 2019 I wrote Standing at the Sky’s Edge was a 21st century Blood Brothers (it is), I also said it must transfer to our National Theatre (that it did). 

And when a new blog gets published, I’ve noticed an increasing number of readers saying that they’re saving it to read with a cup of tea or glass of wine. 

So, thanks for reading. 

Anyway, I feel blessed to have seen the debut of Standing at the Sky’s Edge at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre in 2019, before the pandemic. When it was restaged in Sheffield in 2022. At our Royal National Theatre in 2023. 

And, amazingly, witnessing it win two Olivier awards: best new musical and best original score – is something I will never forget. 

But here we are, 5 years on, a lot has happened in the world and the musical finds its home from home at the concrete fortress that is the Gillian Lynne Theatre.

In fact, I can now see that Standing at the Sky’s Edge is what helped me to find a way of writing about theatre that I hoped would be more accessible. 

Uncovering shows that excavate living history and contain work with diverse communities. 

“THAT neon’s been a bastard since day one,” says a workman passing by Sheffield’s Park Hill – Grade 2-listed brutalist council estate. 

“Should’ve torn the whole place down when they had the chance,” says another, looking up. 

“No, life in it yet,” comes the response. 


Here, brutalist blocks overlooking the UK’s ‘steel’ city – recreated with great flair in Ben Stones’ soaring concrete walkways: Sheffield’s Park Hill estate represents nothing less than the ruin of the ideals upon which Britain’s welfare state is based, the raw emotions of which resonates long after you leave the theatre. 

References are made to Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United football teams and resentment at the gentrification; it’s good to see regional theatre being just that – relevant and local, especially now. 

The whole thing packs a hefty punch, both personal and political.

This heartfelt show – directed by Robert Hastie, fuelled by indie crooner Richard Hawley’s folk-rock songs and a brilliant book by Chris Bush – is a continuous theatrical experience rooted in Sheffield that keeps building, becoming ever more intense and euphoric. 

It refers to itself as “a love letter to Sheffield” and details the lives of three Northern working-class families. There’s inequality, too: generational, social, and regional, between the property haves and have-nots.

And this production may benefit from being a National Theatre co-production with 15 other producers, but it was born through tenacity and public subsidy; outside the M25 and thanks to shrewd partnerships and a world class passionate creative team.

Starting points are more or less three elections / political moments: the 1979 one that brought Thatcher to power, the Brexit referendum and the inevitable levelling-up letdown are the unavoidable background to the stories. 

We start in the 1960s, a home of the newlywed Rose (Rachael Wooding) and steelworker, Harry (Joel Harper Jackson), followed by a Liberian refugee Joy (Elizabeth Ayodele), and finally Poppy (Laura Pitt-Pulford), a middle-class Londoner dealing with the breakdown of her relationship with Nikki (Lauryn Redding).

I want to say that Rachael Wooding’s power as Rose is astounding… She bites right through the soapy domestic pulp; the finale reprise scene ‘As the Dawn Breaks’ is shattering, and it won’t go away.

Anyway, the great virtue of Standing at the Sky’s Edge (the track featured on Hawley’s 2012 album of the same name) is that it captures both the internal and external struggles individuals face in finding a home. It is also put across by a cast who sing, dance and act with exemplary commitment.

But the pleasure in Bush’s increasingly funny book is in the way that, with designer Stones, they gradually expand the journeys that each family go on. 

Yet, Hastie is playing a subtler game with the subject material, turning the musical into a study of the power of community against the backdrop of industrial decay. 

This musical argues smartly, with practical political sense, that it is not enough simply to build more houses: there must be a plan in which homes are created where there is work. 

The faults can be quickly explained. At almost three hours, the show is too long and loses some momentum particularly in the final quarter. Likewise, the dots connecting the three overlaid narratives occasionally slide. 

If you are a Tory, you will probably find it unsettling.

What is clear, however, is that, this is the most original and important musical in the West End. I hope that audiences get behind it. A first-rate piece of work by a director who’s daring and agile… It’s heaven; alive in a way that West End musicals rarely are.

Park Hill in 1961 … the ‘streets in the sky’ – designed to be wide enough to drive a milk float along. 

In that context, North-south wealth inequality in England is on course to grow, stating the richest 10% hold almost half of all wealth, according to a new report by thinktank IPPR North; a new and widening class divide has been created through systemic neglect.

In fact, the housing crisis in Britain is now so bad that empty high street shops and offices could be converted to homes. 

Anyhow, this week, at the press night I bumped into Richard Hawley.

“Things will get better. Won’t they?” I asked.

“Things will change, pal. As long as we learn from history,” he eloquently said with a fag in his mouth. 

A memo to the Prime Minister and Chancellor ahead of this week’s budget that investment in public services and funding are key to reversing the growing scandalous regional divide and a broken country where nothing really works. 

Later this year we head to the polls, do batten your hatches accordingly. 

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, London until August 2024