I’ve had a bit of an epic week, even by my standards, including three rail journeys, though one of them wasn’t for real but felt more real than almost anything I’ve ever done. The latter, of course, was You Me Bum Bum Train, a living installation of different experiences that are created for you and you alone to be at the centre of for a few minutes each before being moved on the next one in a completely riveting, frequently unnerving, and ultimately exhilarating ‘ride’ that involves a supporting cast of around 500 extras.
Journalists have to sign a (pretty heavy-handed) non-disclosure agreement before you can go on it, by which you swear not to reveal the contents of what happens across the course of the experience so that you don’t spoil the surprise for future participants. Mark Lawson, who took the ride straight after me the other night, suggested in his ‘Theatre Studies’ feature for The Guardian that “under a strict reading of the document, I can’t even tell you that I went to the show (or, perhaps for absolute safety, ‘a show’), but a kindly official advised me that the restraining order relates only to ‘the content of scenes.’ Addressed as ‘passengers’, we are weighed (don’t ask, not least because I am legally barred from telling you) and advised that if the experience ever becomes too much, we should place our hands in a T-shape and say “time out” three times, although it is unclear if this is part of a sponsorship deal with the free London listings magazine.
It makes it very hard indeed to write about, of course, beyond saying that you actually did it. (As well as Mark Lawson, Stephen Fry and his young husband were fellow travellers on my night.) My attempt to describe the experience, but not the contents, for The Stage is here). As I put it,
Whereas other interactive shows like Punchdrunk work by creating snatches of scenarios that you might catch only fleetingly, the particular joy of Bum Bum Train is that it creates a series of fully self-contained worlds that are instantly recognisable and whose world you surrender to immediately and willingly (if sometimes not so winningly – there are some scenarios here that I hope never to have play out, and others that will inevitably do so for each and every one of us).
I also took two more standard train rides this week to Leeds and Scarborough respectively — but slightly crazily, they were not consecutive trips but separated by a day in London in between, so I was up and down to Yorkshire twice from King’s Cross! On Thursday I went to Leeds to review Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate — the company’s latest excursion into the territory of musical theatre that opera companies around the world are making in an attempt to expand their audiences. But it was thrilling to hear this show with its original orchestration newly reconstructed by conductor David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking. (My review for The Stage is here).
It came in the same week that English National Opera announced their own plans to follow up this year’s Sweeney Todd with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard next year, which seems a blatant act of both sell-out commercialism and compromise. Though it has an operatic scaled leading role, it is being performed by the rather thin-voiced Glenn Close, reprising her Broadway appearance in the show that she first performed twenty-one years ago. She may now be even more age-appropriate to play a washed up film actress whom the movies have left behind, but I hope her voice hasn’t been left behind, too.
Then I returned to Yorkshire yesterday to go to Scarborough, spiritual (as well as actual) home of Britain’s greatest living playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Though he long ago retired from the post of artistic director — and his successor Chris Monks is moving on soon, too, after 7 years in the post — he remains indelibly associated with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where his playwrighting career began back in 1959 and has continued unbroken ever since.
This summer, as part of the theatre’s own 60th birthday celebrations, he has both revived his 1974 play Confusions there and premiered his latest play — his 79th — Hero’s Welcome there, and I saw both of them yesterday back-to-back. I’ve seen Confusions only once before in a London fringe production at the Union Theatre back in 2009, and it’s an utter joy: a second act scene set in at a village fete had me almost crying with laughter. Though Ayckbourn is a personal hero of mine, I’m afraid I was only able to give a muted welcome to Hero’s Welcome; though he’s tackling as ambitious themes, as ever, the play — and I — seemed to fade in and out of interest, and had a climax that felt tacked on.
The week also took me to Hampstead for the opening night of Ian Kelly’s hilarious theatrical comedy Mr Foote’s Other Leg (my review for LondonTheatre.com is here); I’m sorry I was unable to catch Nell Gwynn, a second comedy about and set in the world of the theatre, open at Shakespeare’s Globe, but will try to do so before the end of its run, and I also caught up, belatedly, with the National’s spectacular new production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, another play about the redemptive power of theatre itself.
I also interviewed Matthew Bourne at his Islington home for a future issue of The Stage, had lunch with the producer Michael Harrison, and co-hosted a Critics’ Circle lunch in honour of Nick Hytner, as he was presented with its Annual Award for Services to the Arts, as I wrote about here).
It wasn’t all work and no play this week, though — I also saw Cynthia Erivo’s amazing late night farewell to London concert before she flew off to New York to begin rehearsals for the transfer of The Color Purple. She was joined by an astonishing parade of guests, including Scott Alan (with whom she has just recorded a brand-new album of his work, along with Oliver Tompsett), Richard Fleeshman, Alison Jiear and of course Dean John-Wilson.
And I also happily revisited Bend it Like Beckham – my fifth time and counting! – taking as my guests Scott Alan, Michael Feinstein and Michael’s husband Terrence. I can’t get enough of this great show. And it was wonderful to run into Nigel Lilley, the show’s fantastic musical director, before the show; when I told him I was bringing Michael Feinstein and he told me what a fan of his he was, I suggested that we all met afterwards, at which he was able to tell Michael how much he adored both his MGM album and Hugh Martin album. Tonight I’m seeing Michael himself perform at the Adelphi.