By the end of today I’ll have had another ten-show week. But its the storm before the lull — tomorrow I go to South Africa for a fortnight of no theatre at all (I’ll still be writing about it, though — I’ll be using some downtime to work on some features that have been stacking up, like planes over Heathrow, waiting for a gap in my diary to write them up. I’ve currently got five audio files waiting to transcribe and write on my computer; tomorrow I’m doing another interview before I fly, and have set up a Skype interview to do while I’m over there to a director back here…. And I’m also planning a themed column series for The Stage that will also require some more heavy lifting.)
Meanwhile, this last week I’ve reviewed four new productions (including the one I’m seeing today) and one old one celebrating its 10th anniversary, played catch-up on three shows I missed the openings of, done another repeat of a show that’s about to close, and seen one show as it began previews. (I’m not going to talk about — or even name — the latter; but it’s a show I couldn’t bear not being in at the birth of and expect to revisit again before it opens; but thank God I’m going to be away or I’d be tempted to be there a lot more!)
If part of my week was seeing multiples of shows, at least I was only seeing them — not making them. It was a week in which director Lindsay Posner had two openings — only separated by a single night inbetween them — and I saw (and reviewed) both: Hay Fever at the Duke of York’s (my review for The Stage is here) and Communicating Doors at the Menier Chocolate Factory (my review for The Stage is here).
I went to the opening nights of both. Colleagues who went on different nights to me for Hay Fever — notably Sam Marlowe for The Times (£) — had a strikingly different reaction; so it made me wonder if the chemistry was somehow off on first night. But then that’s the theatre: we have to review what is in front of us. Any review is a report of that one night in that theatre.
Posner wasn’t the only one doubling up this week — Bath’s Theatre Royal, who had originated that production of Hay Fever last summer, also brought its Ustinov studio production of The Father to the Tricycle, where it earned a(nother) series of five star raves from The Times (£), Financial Times, Whatsonstage and Sunday Times (£).
I’m constantly bemoaning (but also celebrating) the fact that London has so much to see we can’t possibly see everything, especially with all the clashes to the critical diary, let alone time out for travel. On Tuesday, for instance, the opening of The Father clashed with the 10th anniversary performance of Billy Elliot (which I reviewed here),so I’m glad to have now scheduled seeing The Father immediately after my return from South Africa. I made good on some other shows I’d previously missed this week, including Mark Jagasia’s hilarious tabloid newsroom comedy Clarion (starring Greg Hicks and Clare Higgins pictured below) at the Arcola, which I saw on its last night last night.
A FaceBook friend who saw me there posted a comment, “And good to see Mark Shenton. I thought critics normally come on the first night, not the last! ” Well, better late than never, even if it was slightly unnerving to find myself seated right beside the playwright himself as I watched it. He’s a former show business editor for the Daily Express, sister paper of the title I spent over a decade as theatre critic for, so it felt close to home: with offices on the Thames, and an obsession with immigration, the weather and horoscopes, I wonder just how fictionalised this portrait of the workings of a tabloid, here called the Clarion, is. The bullying editor feels like a scathingly accurate composite portrait of the worst excesses of tabloid journalism.
I was also very happy to finally catch Everyman, Rufus Norris’s stunning opening production as director since he’s taken over the running of the National Theatre himself, especially in the light of Lloyd Evans’s outrageous “review” in The Spectator, in which he takes launches a broad swipe at Norris himself and his programming of this play — seen in a new version by Carol Ann Duffy — as well as Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and declares of the fact that both were written by women that if Norris “spent a bit more time examining scripts rather than their authors’ loins he might start to produce decent theatre. And fighting prejudice with prejudice simply spreads prejudice. An over-hasty viewer may conclude from these two duds that women are biologically incapable of writing drama.”
An over-hasty reader may conclude that Evans is biologically incapable of writing a review. He goes on to show is true colours, writing that “[Norris] has decided that his South Bank empire is a moral poodle-parlour where highminded freethinkers, like himself, can trot along to have their pet prejudices primped, powdered, scented and put on parade. Great fun. As long as you’ve got a big fluffy mutt to exhibit to your chums. If you don’t it’s a bore. Although Sir Rufus has only just got started people are already whispering the dreaded words ‘David Moyes’.” And I feel like shouting the dread words Katie Hopkins. There’s only a fine line between journalism and professional trolling.
As much as I loathe this sort of reviewing, which is all about prejudice and sad resentments (it’s surely no accident that Evans once aspired to be a playwright himself, with not one but two dreadful plays seen at the King’s Head a few years ago), it at least gives us something to kick back at, so bring it on.
Evans, who cuts a bit of a loner figure on first nights, was seated across the aisle from me at Thursday’s opening of High Society; I can’t wait to read what he has to say. One thing that’s interesting: he didn’t write a single note all evening. In fact, he doesn’t even have the customary critic’s notebook on his lap, so obviously never intended to write any notes. Presumably, like AA Gill once admitted in the Sunday Times of not recording or taking notes during interviews he did for the paper, he simply recalls it all from memory. (I’m always reminded of Big Jule in Guys and Dolls, who presents a set of customised blank dice to gamble with and says, “I remember where the spots formerly were.”)
But if I’m not sure that the prejudiced Evans is a reliable witness to what he sees, there are other critics I routinely rely on. One is Sunday’s best read of all, Susannah Clapp in The Observer — and it was her five star rave for Simon Stephens’ Carmen Disruption that made me hasten along to the Almeida yesterday before it shuts next Saturday.
This deconstruction — or reconstruction — of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with the title character re-cast as a rentboy, is, in Susannah’s words, “a true response to a great work. It is elliptical, tangled, sometimes in danger of suffocating itself with its own complications. But it is not, as you might fear, a wilful act of destruction. The dialogue – well, actually mainly monologue – may be disjointed, but it is ripe: the first sight of snow is like ‘great marshmallows floating in the air’. The soundscape is a baleful urban cacophony. Michael Longhurst’s coruscating production draws on technology as an active, terrorising ingredient, part of a materialist attack on human relations. Words scroll on a screen at the back of the stage not only to inform but to show how voices have drifted apart from their words. Carmen Disruption will go on reverberating, not because it beguiles but because it is so 3D dramatic. It is a depth charge to the theatre.”
No wonder that my young(er) colleague Matt Trueman as also at yesterday’s matinee, revisiting it for another look. I often do that myself, and this week was at Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again — a musical that I’d seen twice in New York, too, in its original Broadway incarnation, but had been given a comprehensive make-over for the West End by its original director Bartlett Sher, composer David Yazbek and book writer Jeffrey Lane. As I noted in a column here at the time in time it opened here in January, “If at first you don’t succeed, goes the old saying, try, try, try again. But I prefer Samuel Beckett’s advice: ‘Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’…. And as much as I applauded its creators for taking another hard look at it, my own view is that they failed again. Failed better, perhaps, but failed nonetheless.”
Seeing this production again, it can’t disguise the musical’s own tonal uncertainties as it translates the combination of madcap farce and painful realities of damaged lives from Almodovar’s film to the stage. But one thing has triumphantly settled in the production and made it entirely worth seeing again: Tamsin Greig’s performance in the lead role is a living wonder of comic invention and honesty.
And with that, I’m done for the week (apart from a new musical I’m seeing this afternoon). See you again from South Africa!