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£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

The cynic, as Oscar Wilde put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For commentators, that switches into reverse: indifferent to price, we are expected to deliberate value. 

Full disclosure, I am privileged to not have to usually pay for tickets. Occasionally, though, I despair. I feel there is no place for the working class in theatre. This is by no means my first rodeo, either.

This week, premium tickets for Mike Bartlett’s play Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson – were put on sale with ticket prices that had been spiked to £400.

If you thought that was bad, though, add the additional burden of ATG’s booking fees, the total came to £460. £460!  A sorry state of affairs.

Let’s do a brief summary: Cock is directed by Marianne Elliott and made headlines after understudy Harper-Jackson stepped into replace Taron Egerton who left suddenly due to ‘personal reasons’ having fainted during the first preview.

A spokesperson for the 90-minute play defended the unprecedented ticket prices as the result of “supply and demand.” That’s showbiz, honey. However, following backlash producers Elliott & Harper subsequently reduced the cost of the seats significantly.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The world may be shifting, but we must remind commercial producers – especially those recently in receipt of three rounds of significant Culture Recovery Funds – the value of accessible and affordable tickets, and a sense of the very real dangers should they discard it.

The risk of knowing the price of everything is that you can end up forgetting about its value.

Nevertheless, 15% of tickets sold have been at £20 and there is a daily lottery with tickets at this price point. Ambassadors Theatre is also a small house with only 444 seats. But most of these £20 tickets require a degree of flexibility not compatible with most people’s lives.

Still, the West End is a supply-and-demand business – and if there is escalating demand, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from. Even so, accessible tickets equal sustainability, as fair ticket prices encourage theatre-going generally and are key to the creative industries survival.

Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s major subsidised theatres, was £52.17. 

Anyway, Cock briefly became the most expensive play in West End history, thanks to dynamic pricing. First developed for the retail sector, dynamic pricing software uses algorithms to tell a theatre what they can get away with charging. It felt like a tipping point.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Top-price Cock premium seats are now £175. Ones that had been greedily priced at £350 are now £150, additionally £300 tickets are now on sale at £125 plus booking fees. Quite frankly, still absurd for a 90-minute play.

In reality, however, inflated ticket prices – particularly West End ticket prices – risk alienating an entire generation of future audiences as increasingly unaffordable tickets further limits audiences to very rich white people – whose wealth largely surged during the pandemic.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have predicted the UK will fall into recession this year. What’s more, an estimated 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay food and energy bills, as rising prices, and higher taxes squeeze budgets. This, coupled with the ongoing decimation of cultural education in our state schools, is a theatre time bomb. Potential audience members now face the choice between heating and eating, rather than whether to have an interval ice cream.

Yet the ever more pressing wider issue is that theatre’s future, and indeed recovery, rests entirely on the next generation of theatre-goers. Price them out at your peril. Habits are changing fast; with disrupted education, rising rents and low wages.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Producers Elliott & Harper have stated that they will not be commenting further, but this outcome speaks for itself.

This U-turn was not just a people-power social media victory: this was direct action. A historic watershed.

That is all.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June

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Jerusalem returns

If life does indeed come down to just a single moment, mine probably arrived last week on Easter Monday when I witnessed Mark Rylance on stage as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jerusalem. His combination of theatricality and verbal vivacity is extraordinary.

First staged at the Royal Court in 2009, Jez Butterworth’s seismic play about national identity has returned to the West End for a limited 16 week engagement. Following record-breaking runs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as well on Broadway in 2011, this stint is set to rake in £14 million.

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem on Broadway

Sonia Friedman’s globe conquering revival tells the story of a freewheeling man that faces eviction for unauthorised encampment in a Wiltshire wood on the day of the local fair.

Butterworth said that when he first saw Rylance as Rooster it was “the closest thing to magic I’ve ever seen”. Reader, I can corroborate this claim, Jerusalem is the purest form of theatre gold and Rylance is hypnotic. Underneath the rich and decaying leafy Brechtian design by ULTZ live chickens, a tortoise, a goldfish, and various lost souls. It is a totally spellbinding, haunting and unforgettable evening. 

Jerusalem at the Apollo

A tatty 30ft St George’s Day flag drop curtain greets you as you take to your seat. Butterworth’s epochal writing, it’s fair to say, hit me with the same force; in the character of “Rooster” Byron, we find an emblem of both England and the English language, like Falstaff on acid. “I dreamt all night of waterfalls,” Rooster says at the start, “Riches. Fame. A glimpse of God’s tail… Comes a time you’d swap it all for a solid golden p— on English soil.” 

Theatre’s all about timing, and with enthusiastic audiences flocking to auditoriums, Ian Rickson’s extraordinary production has returned just at the right time. Rooster’s bonkers tales about giants on the A1 take on a spiritual believability under Rylance’s stagecraft, but they’re also very, very funny. In any case, ambivalence is the key word here, I think. 

There is something mesmerising about a man living in a wood who hasn’t woken up yet to the tragedy of his predicament, who is still left beating the same old drum. Literally, culturally, and politically. 

The elephant in the room here is, of course, Rooster’s Romany heritage – the “gypo” slurs, the gold jewellery, the fair, the violence, the caravan in the woods and the drugs. (Butterworth’s play owes much to the time he spent with a retired Romany builder called Micky Lay). Stronger efforts to improve outcomes and representation for these severely disadvantaged communities are overdue. To this end, and following minor tweaks, Rylance’s portrayal never feels offensive or clumsy. 

Real-world politics cast a subtly different light on proceedings; this restaging reveals a yearning for a bygone Britain that never really existed. The Englishness which Jerusalem supposedly explored is now an even knottier concept than it was in 2009. 

Ian Rickson and Jez Butterworth

And anyway, Butterworth is adamant that critics still miss the point. “If this is any way a state-of-the-nation play, then I have failed abjectly,” he said at a recent event. 

He added: “You know how much I give a monkeys about the ‘state of the nation’, adding that Englishness was not a concern of his, explaining: “I don’t feel very English… The reason it is back is my daughter Bel never got the chance to see it.” 

Amazing. 

We need to celebrate and enjoy Jerusalem now so we can remember there was a time, before the cripplingly dull, joyless, and inflexible wave of new writing that engulfed everything, when going to the theatre used to be so much fun. 
Jerusalem is old-fashioned (3 hours, two intervals) and its return wonderfully sticks a bonfire under the problematic theatre echo chamber that caused the great British sense of humour failure of 2012-2020

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem

A theatre moment to cherish for ever. 

Jerusalem is at the Apollo theatre, London until 17 August.

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Olivier Awards nominations 2022: Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club leads the pack 

After a virtual ceremony in 2020 and no ceremony last year, the Olivier Awards are back this year with an in-person event, you may have heard. The nominations were announced today by Sam Tutty and Miriam Teak-Lee.

Some quick thoughts: Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club tops the Olivier Award nominations. The odds are in its favour. Lily Allen feels like a makeweight on this list – a so-so entry playing a hysterical wife in a contemporary haunted house-chiller. Where is Saoirse Ronan?

Frozen was mostly snubbed. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella was left out in the cold, with one nomination to its name: not even a nod for that fitful score. Back To The Future – The Musical, a new stage adaptation of the hit 1985 film, landed seven nominations, which was surprising.

On the play front, single nods for Anna X and The Shark is Broken feel kind of stingy. The ‘7 actors who play a tiger’ in Lolita Chakrabarti’s majestic Life of Pi nomination is amazing, the show secured 9 nods. 

Jessie Buckley photo credit: Marc Brenner

The Best Actress in a Musical must be the closest fought. Jessie Buckley gives a superb and utterly unique performance in Cabaret. Sutton Foster was totally totally mesmerising in Anything Goes. Not backing Anything Goes in the Best Revival of a Musical is a practically treasonable offence, but Cabaret inches into pole position on nearly every category. These two productions are toe-to-toe, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. 

Anyway, let’s have a recap of the nominees plus a guide to who should win each category.

Cunard Best Revival

A Number at The Old Vic

Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville Theatre

The Normal Heart at National Theatre – Olivier

The Tragedy Of Macbeth at Almeida Theatre

Who should win: The Normal Heart 

Who will win: The Tragedy of Macbeth 

Noël Coward/Geoffrey Johnson Award for Best Entertainment or Comedy Play

The Choir Of Man at Arts Theatre

Pantoland At The Palladium at The London Palladium

Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at Criterion Theatre

The Shark Is Broken at Ambassadors Theatre

Who should win: Pride and Prejudice (*Sort of)  

Who will win: The Shark is Broken 

Magic Radio Best Musical Revival

Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Spring Awakening at Almeida Theatre

Who should win: Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club   

Who will win: Anything Goes 

Best Costume Design

Jon Morrell for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Christopher Oram for Frozen at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Tom Scutt for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Catherine Zuber for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Piccadilly Theatre

Who should win: Tom Scutt for Cabaret 

Who will win: Tom Scutt for Cabaret

Sutton Foster photo credit Tristram Kenton

d&b audiotechnik Award for Best Sound Design

Ian Dickinson for 2:22 A Ghost Story at Noël Coward Theatre

Carolyn Downing for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Nick Lidster for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Gareth Owen for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Who should win: Carolyn Downing for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Who will win: Gareth Owen for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Best Original Score or New Orchestrations

Anything Goes – New Orchestrations: Bill Elliott, David Chase and Rob Fisher at Barbican Theatre

Back To The Future – The Musical – Composers: Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard; Orchestrations: Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook at Adelphi Theatre

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical – Orchestrator: Simon Hale at Lyric Theatre

Life Of Pi – Composer: Andrew T. Mackay at Wyndham’s Theatre

Who should win: Anything Goes  

Who will win: Life of Pi   

Best Theatre Choreographer

Finn Caldwell for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Julia Cheng for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Sonya Tayeh for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Piccadilly Theatre

Who should win: Cabaret 

Who will win: Cabaret 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

7 actors who play the Tiger for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Dino Fetscher for The Normal Heart at National Theatre – Olivier

Nathaniel Parker for The Mirror And The Light at Gielgud Theatre

Danny Lee Wynter for The Normal Heart at National Theatre – Olivier

Who should win: 7 actors who play the Tiger

Who will win: Dino Fetscher

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Tori Burgess for Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at Criterion Theatre

Liz Carr for The Normal Heart at National Theatre – Olivier

Christina Gordon for Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at Criterion Theatre

Akiya Henry for The Tragedy Of Macbeth at Almeida Theatre

Who should win: Tori Burgess

Who will win: Tori Burgess 

Blue-I Theatre Technology Award for Best Set Design

Tim Hatley for Design and Nick Barnes & Finn Caldwell for Puppets for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Tim Hatley for Design and Finn Ross for Video Design for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Derek McLane for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Piccadilly Theatre

Tom Scutt for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre 

Who should win: Life of Pi 

Who will win: Life of Pi 

Life of Pi Photo: Johan Persson

White Light Award for Best Lighting Design

Neil Austin for Frozen at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Isabella Byrd for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Tim Lutkin for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Tim Lutkin and Andrzej Goulding for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

 Who should win: Cabaret 

Who will win: Frozen 

Best Actress In A Supporting Role In A Musical

Gabrielle Brooks for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical at Lyric Theatre

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt for Cinderella at Gillian Lynne Theatre

Carly Mercedes Dyer for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Liza Sadovy for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Who should win: Victoria Hamilton-Barritt

Who will win: Carly Mercedes Dyer

Best Actor In A Supporting Role In A Musical

Clive Carter for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Piccadilly Theatre

Hugh Coles for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Elliot Levey for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Gary Wilmot for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Who should win: Elliot Levey 

Who will win: Elliot Levey 

Eddie Redmayne photo credit: Marc Brenner

Best Actor In A Musical

Olly Dobson for Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

Arinzé Kene for Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical at Lyric Theatre

Robert Lindsay for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Eddie Redmayne for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Who should win: Eddie Redmayne 

Who will win: Eddie Redmayne 

Best Actress In A Musical

Jessie Buckley for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Sutton Foster for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Beverley Knight for The Drifters Girl at Garrick Theatre

Stephanie McKeon for Frozen at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

 Who should win: JESSIE BUCKLEY

Who will win: JESSIE BUCKLEY

Best Actress

Lily Allen for 2:22 A Ghost Story at Noël Coward Theatre

Sheila Atim for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville Theatre

Emma Corrin for Anna X at Harold Pinter Theatre

Cush Jumbo for Hamlet at Young Vic

Who should win: Emma Corrin 

Who will win: Lily Allen 

Best Actor

Hiran Abeysekera for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Ben Daniels for The Normal Heart at National Theatre – Olivier 

Omari Douglas for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville Theatre

Charles Edwards for Best Of Enemies at Young Vic

 Who should win: Hiran Abeysekera

Who will win: Ben Daniels 

Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director

Rebecca Frecknall for Cabaret at The Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre

Michael Longhurst for Constellations – Donmar Warehouse at Vaudeville Theatre

Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes at Barbican Theatre

Max Webster for Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Who should win: Rebecca Frecknall 

Who will win: Rebecca Frecknall 

Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre

10 Nights at Bush Theatre

Folk at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

The Invisible Hand at Kiln Theatre

Old Bridge at Bush Theatre

A Place For We at Park Theatre

Who should win: Folk at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

Who will win: 10 Nights at Bush Theatre 

Best Family Show

Billionaire Boy at Garrick Theatre

Dragons And Mythical Beasts at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

What The Ladybird Heard at Palace Theatre

Wolf Witch Giant Fairy at Royal Opera House – Linbury Theatre

Who should win: Billionaire Boy at Garrick Theatre

Who will win: Billionaire Boy at Garrick Theatre

Best New Play

2:22 A Ghost Story at Noël Coward Theatre

Best Of Enemies at Young Vic

Cruise at Duchess Theatre

Life Of Pi at Wyndham’s Theatre

Who should win: Cruise 

Who will win: Best of Enemies 

Mastercard Best New Musical

Back To The Future – The Musical at Adelphi Theatre

The Drifters Girl at Garrick Theatre

Frozen at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical at Lyric Theatre

Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Piccadilly Theatre

Who should win: Moulin Rouge! 

Who will win: Moulin Rouge!  

And there we have it. 

The 2022 Olivier Awards take place on Sunday April 10 at the Royal Albert Hall.

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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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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 

Award-winning West End Musical & Juliet Celebrates Second Birthday

& JULIET celebrates its Second Anniversary in London’s West End with the release of brand new production photographs by Johan Persson.

 The award-winning musical has been thrilling audiences since it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 2 November 2019. 

Fabulously fresh and riotously funny, & JULIET explodes with dozens of pop anthems by legendary songwriter Max Martin, including … Baby One More TimeSince U Been GoneRoarIt’s My Life, I Want It That Way, and Can’t Stop the Feeling! mThe show also includes the brand new song One More Try, written especially for the show by Max.

 Miriam-Teak Lee, who was awarded the Olivier Award for Best Actress in 2020 for her performance as Juliet leads a cast including Cassidy Janson, who also won an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Anne Hathaway, Oliver Tompsett as William Shakespeare, David Bedella, who also won an Olivier Award for his performance in the show as Lance, Jordan Luke Gage as Romeo, Melanie La Barrie as Nurse,and Tim Mahendran as Francois. Alex Thomas-Smith recently joined the principal cast to play the role of May. 

The ensemble includes Roshani AbbeyJocasta AlmgillJosh Baker, Ivan De Freitas, Rhian Duncan, Kieran Lai, Nathan Lorainey-Dineen, Jaye Marshall, Grace Mouat, Antoine Murray-Straughan, Billy Nevers, Kerri Norville, Christopher Parkinson, Kirstie Skivington, Alex Tranter, Sophie Usher and Rhys Wilkinson

As well as the three Olivier Awards& Juliet also won 6 Whatsonstage Awards – the most of any production in 2020 – and won further awards at The Black Theatre Awards and The Mousetrap Theatre Awards. The show also performed on BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing in the coveted slot in ‘Musicals Week’. 

Romeo who?! With her bags packed and ready to escape Verona, Juliet recovers from heartbreak in the best way possible… by dancing the night away with her best friends by her side! But when the sparkle fades, the confetti falls and reality catches up, it’s clear that Juliet needs to face her past in order to find her future. Can she reclaim a story that has been written in the stars? Is there really life after Romeo… or could he be worth one more try? 

Come along for the ride as the original Anne Hathaway takes on her husband William Shakespeare to remix his legendary play. As comedy meets tragedy, will Juliet get the ending she truly deserves? And most importantly, can their love survive this battle of wills? 

Brought to life by an award-winning creative team, this vibrant, colourful and timely musical is directed by Luke Sheppard (In the Heights, Rent and What’s New Pussycat?) with a story by David West Read (Netflix’s Schitt’s Creek), electrifying choreography from Jennifer Weber and stunning set design from Soutra Gilmour

Max Martin and Tim Headington present & Juliet, which is produced by Martin Dodd, Tim Headington, Max Martin, Jenny Petersson and Theresa Steele Page.