Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, after an extraordinary day that saw us bid farewell to Her Majesty the Queen, after a reign of 70 years that saw her appoint 15 prime ministers — the latest of whom Liz Truss she met only on Tuesday. Truss will now be reporting in a weekly audience to King Charles III (coincidentally the title of Mike Bartlett’s 2014 play which imagined the future that awaited him — and us — that transferred to the West End and Broadway).
The royalty have, of course, frequently been the subject of theatrical and screen speculations; indeed, the Queen’s weekly meetings with the serving PM was the subject of Peter Morgan’s West End and Broadway hit The Audience (starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty in its 2013 premiere pictured above, with Kristen Scott Thomas taking over when it returned to the West End in 2015). Morgan would go onto develop the Netflix TV series The Crown that has chronicled the Queen’s reign from 1953, in which she has been variously played by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton (the latter is yet to air).
Performances begin tonight at London’s Kiln for a revival of Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s play that was originally premiered there in 2013, about the relationship between the Queen (being played by Marion Bailey, reprising her original role) and Margaret Thatcher (Kate Fahy). Expect next week’s press night on 15 September to have a particular poignance.
In 2017 The Guardian published a long read feature on “the secret plans for the days after the Queen’s death”; which included this theatrical nugget: “The National Theatre will close if the news breaks before 4pm, and stay open if not. All games, including golf, will be banned in the Royal Parks.”
Last night I was at the Young Vic, waiting to go in for the press night of Who Killed My Father when the news was formally announced; executive director Lucy Davies took to the stage to make a pre-show announcement for anyone who’d not yet heard and said that people could leave the theatre if they wished. She then held a one-minute silence for reflection before the performance began.
WHO KILLED MY FATHER (Young VIc Theatre)
Based on Edouard Louis’s autobiographical novel Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed My Father), Ivo van Hove’s production — performed in English by his long-time actor collaborator Hans Kesting — follows hot on the heels of last month’s Edinburgh UK premiere of van Hove’s adaptation of A LITTLE LIFE that I reported on here (and in which Kesting also featured).
This broodingly intense solo show — just 90 minutes straight through, as opposed to the four-hour plus A LITTLE LIFE — has been imported to the Young Vic from Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. The Young Vic has been central to van Hove’s elevation to the forefront of international theatre makers: it was former artistic director David Lan who invited him to direct an English-language production of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE in 2014 that then transferred to the West End and Broadway.
In a programme note to this show, rising star director Rebecca Frecknall describes the profound impact on her of seeing that production: “It’s February 2015 and I am standing among an applauding crowd with tears streaming down my face. I am on my feet without realising it, having immediately risen from my seat as the lights went out before the applause erupted. I have just watched Ivo van Hove’s production of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE at the Young Vic. It is my first encounter with the work of the Belgian theatre director, and it will not be my last.”
She acknowledges, “the impact his work has had on my generation of theatre practitioners is undeniable”, and offers her own neat critical summary of his method: “It’s as though he had taken the play and wrung it out like a wet towel; leaving its essence on the bare stage.” She also writes, `”For me, van Hove’s work was the first I’d seen, outside of the dance world, where I felt every element had truly earned its place on stage. Nothing was for decoration; all choices were anchored to what he felt was the central ‘idea’ of the play. This was a revelation to me, demanding a new level of rigour in my own work.”
And seeing WHO KILLED MY FATHER (pictured above), which van Hove himself adapted for the stage from Louis’s book, it is absolutely true. There isn’t a director anywhere working with quite the intensity of Ivo van Hove today. A LITTLE LIFE was a harrowingly brilliant, 4 hour portrait of the effects of childhood sexual abuse; now WHO KILLED MY FATHER is a more pared-back, 90 minute solo show. The shifting moods of this story of family dysfunction are beautifully controlled, with sound, lights, video and even smell employed in a haunting evening of different textures.
As someone who has had my own complex relationship with a bullying narcissistic father, I was intensely moved by the compassion this play portrays towards a patriarch who had rejected him, as he feels his way towards a kind of understanding about what made his father the person he was.
Reviewing the book it is based on when it was published in Britain in 2019, Tim Adams writes for The Guardian, “It is a kind of love letter, but one that admits only the bluntest truths ‘One night, in the village cafe, you said in front of everyone that you wished you’d had another son instead of me. For weeks I wanted to die.’ And, a question that goes both ways: ‘Is it normal to be ashamed of loving someone?”’ In short, intense bursts of prose Louis unpacks the reality of that shame, by examining over and again the sources of it in what has gone on between himself and his father.”
I’ve been undergoing some of the same process with my own father, who I am no longer in touch with and may never speak to again. I’ve done it, not via writing a book as Louis does here, but via a 12-step fellowship that deals in unpacking the layers of family trauma.
It has finally freed me of the long cycles of depression I have suffered from all my life; being rejected by your father has a very high psychological price, and it is a sadly common experience for gay men, which I went public with in 2020. (Pink News wrote a story about it here, too).
REHAB THE MUSICAL (Playground Theatre)
The night before I was at west London’s Playground Theatre to see REHAB THE MUSICAL, a new musical co-scored by Grant Black (son of British musical lyricist legend Don Black) and Murray Lachlan Young, with a book by Elliot Davis, that also touched on personal experience for me. Not that I’ve been in rehab — yet, touch wood — but I’ve been in 12-step recovery programmes, first for addiction, then for family trauma, since 2013, which often form the basis of rehab.
We inevitably bring ourselves and our own experiences to what we see in the theatre, and I recognised a lot of what some of the characters are dealing with here (though I’m happy to say I’ve never been addicted to tanning). The show is co-produced by Don Black’s other son Clive Black, so it is good to see them continuing the family trade! But that’s not the only headline here.
This is a musical of heart and warmth; and it has some emotionally well-crafted songs, punchily delivered by a fierce cast including such West End performers as Jonny Labey, Gloria Onitiri and Jodie Steele, as well as all-around legend Keith Allen.
At this point, the show may be trying too hard to encompass too many competing story strands, giving it too much of an earnest flavour; but I’d rather it attempt too much than too little. It can now be usefully pared back.
My regularly updated feature on openings in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-september-5/
As we move into the autumn, a number of shows with previously open-ended runs are already announced to close — THE DRIFTERS GIRL (on October 15), DEAR EVAN HANSEN (October 22), COME FROM AWAY, (January 7) MARY POPPINS (January 8) and GET UP! STAND UP! (also January 8).
Of course theatres are (usually) at a premium, with shows circling the West End trying to land like planes over Heathrow — amongst those waiting right now are Chichester’s revival of CRAZY FOR YOU that closed in West Sussex on Sunday (and will be waiting for its star Charlie Stemp, pictured above, to become available again after he completes his run in MARY POPPINS) and the new production of INTO THE WOODS (running to this Saturday at Bath Theatre Royal).
Many shows just have to sit it out and wait for their opportunity: also still looking for homes, too, are the Tom Jones jukebox show WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? that was launched at Birmingham Rep last October, the Almeida’s revival of SPRING AWAKENING from last December, and MINCEMEAT, the much-heralded Southwark Playhouse musical that subsequently played an extended season at Riverside Studios.
And I’m still holding out hope that the Donmar’s 2014 revival of CITY OF ANGELS, which was finally receiving a West End premiere at the Garrick in 2020 but was forced to close during previews by the pandemic, may yet resurface; as I am, even more so, for Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of GROUNDHOG DAY that played a brief try-out season at the Old VIc in 2016 before going on to Broadway, after which it was due to return here but still hasn’t.
But some, if not all, good things come to those that wait: the Young VIc are finally transferring James Graham’s BEST OF ENEMIES to the West End this November, nearly a year on since its premiere in the Cut, and Peter Morgan’s PATRIOTS is due in the West End next May, nine months since it closed at the Almeida.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
I’ll be back here on Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)
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