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The Other Palace is just another example of the corporate takeover of theatre culture

To London’s Other Palace, a rolling mess. Honestly, the full catalogue of stories would take more than a book to cover.

As you may now have read, a summarily letter was sent to casual front of house workers that had the professionalism of a Bank Holiday sing-a-long matinee of We Will Rock You.

The blanket letter sent from some kind of middle-management bunker began: “Dear Staff Member,” — have these people not heard of mail merge?

“I am writing to give you notice that your current contract with The Other Palace ends on 3rd September 2023. We have some new roles as detailed below available for the new show which starts on 8th September 2023.”

In 5 days? It went on to promise that the new roles with “fixed weekly hours” would mean “more stability within the team on all positions”.

Right you are. Aware that they can do whatever they want, though, the grim letter asks employees to send a brief paragraph for the role they wish to apply for and ‘why we should re-hire you’.

Where do you even start? It’s called fire and rehire – it seems nearly all corporate West End theatre operators are currently cynically exploiting things in this way to drive down casual workers pay and conditions. Join a union, kids. 

However, The Other Palace’s behaviour exposes much more than just low pay and poor terms and conditions; it also highlighted the significant legal imbalance that exists between arts workers and their employers.

But wait! A brazen statement followed: “The Other Palace issued a letter to FOH employees on casual & fixed-term contracts due to end on 3 Sept. We were pleased to let them know that there was the opportunity to continue working with us should they wish to be considered & are delighted by the number who are interested.”

There is simply no moral failing of theirs that would not cause their employees to passionately excuse it or love them more for it. Obviously. 

In a recent profile, fresh from a spin class, Other Palace artistic director Paul Taylor Mills said that he had stopped engaging in conversation on Twitter as an act of self-preservation. “It’s too aggressive for me.”

Fair enough. Bizarrely, a go-to phrase of Mr Taylor Mills is ‘Be Kind’.

Sorry what? Far be it for me to speak for all “real people”, but as a real person I have to say my overall impression is that the only people who are not usually being kind are the people in positions of power who deploy the phrase.

And yet, everything being someone else’s fault is surely not the most appealing strategy. 

Crucially, The Other Palace allegedly has and continues to put its loyal staff under tremendous stress and pressure. Why do we assume that they will do it for love?

In the meantime, key Theatre service staff are surviving on less and less. Where’s the sense and where’s the future in that? Where is SOLT?

Last week, one prominent West End theatre operator terminated FOH contracts with 2 weeks notice – one usher who contacted me said: “We didn’t even get a letter!” 

Of course, the entire theatre industry is facing the impact of a bleak economic reality, with the real challenges of Brexit and the hangover from the pandemic. Nobody disputes that.

But maybe corporate theatres like The Other Palace should think about treating casual workers with some dignity. As the cost of living crisis bites, maybe all theatres – Nimax, LW Theatres, Delftont Mackintosh and ATG should think of the ways that poor decision making, firing and rehiring loyal staff is impacting frontline staff and their wellbeing. And how about a little more transparency from West End Theatre owners around their commitment to paying staff Living Wage – not just Minimum wage.

These small steps may just help shift a theatre culture that currently sees nothing unusual in a cheap, often young drama school students, actors in the casual workforce subsidising its success.

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Here’s Your Definitive Guide To Edinburgh Fringe 2023 (You’re Welcome)

The finest shows at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Allegedly.

Hello to you,

I’ve been very well thanks for asking.

Anyway, with over 1 million tickets issued so far and thousands of people watching street performances and free shows; the 2023 Fringe is proving as popular as ever. 

I have pulled together a list of very good shows– and others that should be good.

First up: Spooky-but-silly sketch show Party Ghost is hilarious, I hear.

Queue for returns for All Inside by fourth-wall breaking Adrian Bliss– I think he is a surreal superstar – don’t miss him at The Pleasance.

You are in safe hands with Jenny Sealey, artistic director of disabled-led theatre company Graeae, who makes her stage debut in Self-raising, a hilarious true-life story about growing up Deaf.

Cross genre Frankie Thompson and Liv Ello: Body Show is riding high after a slew of five star reviews – snap up a ticket. The Ice Hole: A Cardboard Comedy, at Pleasance Courtyard, is a physical comedy show performed using a thousand pieces of cardboard, of course.

Anyhow. Make sure you catch hilarious Xhloe Rice and Natasha Roland in And Then the Rodeo Burned DownIf you missed Tony! The Tony Blair Rock Opera in London, catch it at the EICC; hour of knockabout fun with a spirited young cast. 

Meanwhile, I hear Dark Noon also at EICC is an extraordinary show co-directed by Denmark’s Tue Biering and South Africa’s Nhlanhla Mahlangu for Fix & Foxy.  Go and see Funeral(Ontroerend Goed does grief) at Zoo Southside.

Over at Traverse, don’t miss Isobel McArthur’s jukebox romcom The Grand Old Opera House Hotel and poignant play Heaven – both come highly recommended.

If you like musicals, God Catcher created by Cassie Muise and Tyler McKinnon, is a re-imagining of the myth of Arachne and is running at Underbelly. 

Fresh from appearing on Broadway in Moulin Rouge! Declan Bennett performs autobiographical show Boy Out in the City at Cowgate.

Magic fans, keep your morning free and catch Mario the Maker Magician at Udderbelly – a feel-good fifty minutes for families.

Elsewhere, one woman/man/plumber character-comedy spectacular GUSH, first seen at Vault Festival, is at Assembly George Square.  Canadian duo Agathe and Adrien of N.Ormes Assembly Roxy have good word of mouth. Stinging bio-drama Lena unpacks the tragedy of Lena Zavaroni.  

And 10 speakers surround the audience in Tomorrow’s Child, an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story at Assembly Checkpoint is worth catching.

At enchanting Summerhall, Lung theatre’s Matt Woodhead’s five star verbatim drama Woodhill focuses on the deaths of three prisoners and their families’ battle for justice. Just go! 

Gunter is an atmospheric retelling of a famous witch trial with beautiful music, by Julia Grogan, Rachel Lemon, and Lydia Higman. Startling show, Concerned Others by Alex Bird examines Scotland’s drug deaths with flair.

Also, Lady Dealer, performed by Peckham trailblazer Alexa Davies, stars a rhyming drug dealer. And another show I am intrigued by is Gusla, performed entirely in untranslated Polish. Why not.

Finally, Paines Plough’s pop-up venue Roundabout is hosting Miriam Battye’s lively two-hander Strategic Love Play and fun 2022 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting winner Bullring Techno Makeout Jamz by Nathan Queeley-Dennis. Both sound promising.

My wildcard show is: Mad Ron: Crime School,think Phil Mitchell doing stand up with some excerpts from his “hard man” memoir. 

So, there you have it, that’s the end of my definitive Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023 guide. (There’s always the Free Fringe, though, if you are feeling the pinch.)

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

Bye for now,

Carl x

If you have tips, tweet me: @mrcarl_woodward *thumbs up emoji*.

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Edinburgh Fringe Shouldn’t Exist In A Civilised Society

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

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

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

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

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

Business as usual. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

Too little too late. Sigh.

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

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Miss Saigon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Saigon runs at Crucible Sheffield until 19 August.

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

What will his legacy be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission accomplished. Mostly.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

a touching musical about a man who ages backwards

Youth is wasted on the young. Maybe.

First seen off West End four years ago, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (The Musical) takes F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short supernatural story and 2008 Brad Pitt film, smashes them both together, and shifts the setting to Cornwall.

Benjamin Button (Jamie Parker) is born, as a 70-year-old, to bemused parents in December 1918. Time marches forward, he ages backwards.

Parker never does the expected, and is never sloppy or over-expressive. The role of Benjamin seems to have released something in him.

There is no overkill in writer-director Jethro Compton’s production that is always self-aware that this is a stage version of a story that most people are familiar with from the film: a man who is old when he is born and an infant when he dies.

The chief pleasure, however, lies in the music and the production. Some of the songs – especially the wistful ‘Matter of Time’ – etches itself on the memory.

Sometimes the evening feels a little underpowered, and while Molly Osborne and the enthusiastic 12-strong actor-musician ensemble deliver, some of the 22 scenes need a touch more definition.

But the whole Benjamin Button cast is blessed with a zest and captivating charm I have rarely seen equalled, and one leaves this ambitious production in a mist of joy and tears.

Yes, there are rough edges that could be chopped, yes, there are occasional scenes that are not powerfully played. Yes, it is too long. But there is so much more that is big and bold, imaginative and great-hearted.

Olivier Award-winning actor Jamie Parker plays the title character who ages in reverse in the actor-muso production at Southwark Playhouse Elephant

Indeed, it’s hard not to compare it to foot-stomping musicals Come From Away and a Once for all its sentiment. Darren Clark’s score is lush; what makes it so special is the ripple of bitterness beneath the surface.

The film was a twee train wreck. This Benjamin Button, however, is a multifaceted gem, chock-full of love, charm and joy, and it fits the Southwark Playhouse Elephant space like a glove.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until 1 July (020 7407 0234southwarkplayhouse.co.uk)

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Aspects of Love

There is something off in the tone of Aspects of Love right from the start.

The decision to revive Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical – based on David Garnett’s 1955 novella – about a love triangle in 2023 was Michael Ball’s idea.

Ball – who played Alex in the 1989 production – returns to sing Love Changes Everything, (lyrics by Charles Hart and Don Black) this time as uncle George. He does it nobly.

There are 39 random scenes. At some point through Alex (Jamie Bogoyo) shoots former lover Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford) in the arm. His uncle (Ball) is more concerned about his Matisse wall art. 

The majority of the book and lyrics are stupefying. At the interval I thought my drink had been spiked.

“I only have one life,”‘ drones one character. Only judderingly to add: “Not two.”

In one bit, the chaotic singing collides with the unspeakable: “George used to say you can have more than one emotion at the same time.”

The actual dialogue seems almost an afterthought, and the actors speak their lines without much confidence that they’re worth saying. And so we’re aware of the performers as performers. They’re not all sure what they’re meant to be conveying. And we’re not either.

The other overriding issue with this toe-curling production is that it borders on misogyny. Grooming is overlooked. It’s grim viewing, obviously.

Theatre is an addictively evil thing, though, so once I’d watched act 1 I knew I’d sit through the lot, just to see if something deeply significant actually happened. It didn’t, obviously.

The second half of Jonathan Kent’s production is scattered – as if it had been added to or subtracted from at random. Everything is spelled out. 

Nothing you think could possibly be worth salvaging from this abomination.

The ones who really stand out in this mess, though, are Pitt Pullford and Bogoyo. But their work doesn’t really hold together here, how could it?

They deserve better.

One of the only other things I thought, though, that really elevated the occasion beyond the sum of its parts was the 13-piece band and Tom Kelly’s lush new orchestrations. Other redeeming moments come thanks partly to John Macfarlane’s design and Jon Clark’s lighting. 

But the set, expensive costumes and people seem to be sitting there on stage, waiting for the unifying magic that never happens.

Leaving the Lyric theatre where I saw Aspects of Love, I felt the same way the women must have when uncle George dropped dead: exhausted and relieved.

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Operation Mincemeat

How good is Operation Mincemeat?

When I saw it 12 months ago at Riverside Studios, I thought it a marvellously tart, wry, original musical that got away from the blundering cliches of the formula-bound movie musicals plaguing the West End. 

Second time round I admire it more; partly because its surface joy seems to conceal a great wit, partly because it has the whiplash precision of the best shows plus a good deal of intellectual prescience.

“I don’t know what’s going on!” “Welcome to the British government” goes one exchange.

It’s a bold and imaginative work—a fizzing work and it’s important to mention Operation Mincemeat was nurtured at that powerhouse of a London fringe venue, the New Diorama.

Rob Hastie has been brought in as director to finesse the piece and it has paid off. He is an intelligent, tentative director — see: Standing At The Sky’s Edge — which is another way of saying that his virtues are largely negative.

Stones’ sensational design places the audience in the MI5 headquarters, while Jak Malone merits a medal of honour as the staunch secretary Hester Leggett, who performs a standout love-letter song.

This clever spoof musical tackles a secret service ruse in which the body of an unknown homeless man was used as a decoy, leading German troops away from Sicily in 1943.

It has a powerful and gripping plot, hardly a single extractable tune, a fierce sense of self awareness. The triumph of Hastie’s production and Stones’ design lies in their visualisation of SplitLip’s ideas.

In this regard, the show was concocted by a genius young cast of five: Natasha Hodgson, David Cumming and Zoë Roberts, who were later joined by Jak Malone and Claire-Marie Hall.

It’s very neatly done, the fine quintet of actors rising to the technical challenges of a piece that worms its way into the brain and send you scurrying out into the city blinking – and more attuned to the majesty of serendipity.

The score — it was put together by Cumming, Hagan, Hodgson & Roberts — has a life of its own that gives the show a buzzing vitality. 

Indeed, Operation Mincemeat may turn out to be the most liberating musical ever made. The whole production is a joy; a five year overnight success story. 

I loved it.

Operation Mincemeat runs at the Fortune theatre, London, until 19 August

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Brokeback Mountain

Yeehaw!

I had an uneasy feeling that maybe it would be better if I didn’t go to see Brokeback Mountain— but, if you’re driven to seek the truth, you’re driven.

The West End is currently overrun with movie musicals and stage adaptations, they serve a useful purpose, because they lead people to see live theatre on which the films are based. Not a bad thing in my book.

The young producers who are pushing their way up don’t want to waste their time considering scripts or new ideas that may not attract stars. For them, too, a good show is a show that makes money.

God forbid it that they should have to sit through the whole thing.

But when you see a stage show after seeing the film, your mind is saturated with the actors (Jake Gyllenhaal & Heath Ledger in this instance) and the imagery, and you tend to view it in terms of the movie, ignoring characters and complexities that were not included in it, because they are not as vivid.

This 90 minute stage adaptation is directed by Jonathan Butterell, with a functional script by Ashley Robinson.

Anyway, Young cowboys Jack Twist (Mike Faist) and Ennis Del Mar (Lucas Hedges) meet in the early 1960s when they are hired to tend a huge flock of sheep up on Brokeback Mountain.

They begin a physical affair, but then go their separate ways. Both marry women. When they cross paths four years later, they resume their relationship behind their wives’ backs. Ugh.

Brokeback Mountain, here a memory play with songs, features a live band who perform throughout. Eddi Reader, perched on a stool, delivers these mediocre bluegrass numbers by Dan Gillespie Sells. 

On the one hand, it’s lightweight, and too stifled to be boring. On the other, it’s efficient and visually engaging.

But the colour imagery of Tom Pye’s set and design is so muted that I regretted the need to look at the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) haunting the proceedings. It took precious time away from the other two’s complex performances, their hint of something passive, brooding and repressed.

Technically, the production is slovenly, and the in-the-round staging at the clinical 602 seat sohoplace doesn’t always work. There are totally dead spots in Butterell’s direction. And I was sat by the bed.

There are, however, marvelous actors here, and now and then almost all of them demonstrate how wonderful they can be, but they can’t sustain their roles or blend them without the guidance of the director, because in a show only the director, finally, can be responsible for the coming together of the piece.

Add to that, young and handsome Faist who delivers the famous speech “I wish I knew how to quit you” with raw emotion. He is a remarkably intelligent casting selection for Jack. Faist, fortunately, can wear white pants and suggest splendour without falling into the narcissistic athleticism that juveniles so often mistake for grace.

I suppose it’s a bit crude to say there isn’t enough gay sex. But we do get a quick shadow fumble of belts and zippers in a tent. Apart from one tender embrace, the show mostly left me cold.

There is a chemistry void. Still, it’s a great play for people who don’t like plays.

At worst, Brokeback Mountain becomes a desolate souvenir of the movie, an extended reminiscence.

Brokeback Mountain runs at @sohoplace, London, until 12 August

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Hamnet at the RSC

Maggie O’Farrell’s 1.5mn selling plague-driven novel explores the loss the Shakespeare family experiences when eponymous son Hamnet dies, aged 11.

The boy’s short life is, effectively, subordinated to the legacy of a Great Man, felt only in the shadows it may or may not have cast on the Bard’s most beloved plays.

Now, Lolita Chakribati’s honourable adaptation reopens the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan theatre after a three-year closure.

Hamnet tells the story of 18 years of Shakespeare’s life from the point of view of Anne Hathaway, the countrywoman who was left behind with three children. 

Erica Whyman’s gentle Elizabethan production and 14-strong ensemble glide over Tom Piper’s simple set of wooden beams and ladders. 

The audience is alive to it.

The remarkable and young Madeleine Mantock, in her second stage credit, as Agnes (“but the ‘g’ is silent”) Hathaway has great chemistry with family Latin tutor, William (Tom Varey). She grows herbs and keeps bees “in hemp-woven skeps, which hum with industrious and absorbed life”.

The whole thing is an efficient show — not a great show but one that will probably stir audiences’ emotions and join the ranks of such Shakespeare inspired spin-offs as Shakespeare in Love& Juliet, and also Emilia

The trap Whyman and Chakrabarti sets for the audience, baiting it with a historically famous figure, is unfortunately, a trap we can’t get out of. There is a lot of exposition. 

There is a memorable soundscape featuring Oğuz Kaplangı’s compositions and Xana’s serene sound design; birdsong, the flapping of wings, sporadic knocking.

Still, Whyman has made the English heritage women heroically, mythically alive on the stage. The treatment is certainly on a high level. I was impressed by adult Hamnet, Ajani Cabey 

Although Hamnet is moderately elegant and literate and expensive, and the female driven creative team gussies things up with what may or may not be the key to something or other, it’s basically a traditional tragedy. But the show doesn’t wear its conspicuous cleverness lightly.

Disappointingly, despite a rousing Act 2, the whole thing doesn’t quite come off, and we’re always too aware of the sensitive qualities it’s aiming at.

Yet Hamnet is a reasonably good evening that misses being a really memorable one. This atmospheric show is entertainment, which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory. 

Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley, are said to be in talks to star in Chloe Zhao’s movie version. A West End run looms.

Hamnet runs at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 17 Jun. It transfers to the Garrick theatre, London, from 30 Sep to 6 Jan