Three very different shows I saw last week reminded me, yet again, just what a gloriously diverse industry ours is.
Much Ado About Nothing at The Globe is this year’s Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank play. Directed by Michael Oakley, it’s vibrant and funny. Ben Mansfield as Benedick, wriggling around that huge stage on his stomach during the gulling scene, is a particular high spot. And poor Hero (Aruhan Galieva) gets to wear the prettiest wedding dress I’ve ever seen on or off stage.
These shows – this is the twelfth year of the project – give free tickets to thousands of secondary school students from London and Birmingham. What I love about them is the freshness of the audience response. They chatter like excited starlings until the play starts and then listen, really listen, with a raptness you rarely experience in theatre anywhere else. They also gasp, laugh, boo and applaud spontaneously. Presumably, this is what the groundlings did at the original Elizabethan premiere so it’s heady stuff. No orange peel throwing when teacher’s watching though.
Next up was The MTA (it stands for Musical Theatre Academy but like M&S, its branding means that it mostly goes by initials) in their annual revue Something Old Something New at Bernie Grant Arts Centre. What a show that was too. Thirty-six students – 19 graduating second years and 17 first years – presented 27 numbers and wore, between them, over 250 costumes.
The standard is extraordinarily high in this little school, founded in 2009 by principal Annemarie Lewis Thomas, which could give the big players such as ArtsEd a run for their money. With choreography by a team of nine professionals, we zinged along from Gershwin and Sondheim to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stiles and Drewe with extracts from shows such as Shrek The Musical and Made in Dagenham along the way. Evidence of talent, good teaching and industry readiness in abundance.
Iolanthe at ENO is, of course, something quite other and G&S is Marmite stuff. For those of us who like the Savoy operas (and Marmite) this production is terrific fun. It makes fine use of the Coliseum’s vast stage with lots of whacky ideas such as making Captain Shaw (Head of London Fire Brigade, present in the audience on the first night back in 1882 and serenaded in Gilbert’s text) into a character and treating us to on-stage farm animals, a dog puppet and much more surrealist, English nonsense. The motley, simpering, randy fairies look like feminist drama students trying to be outrageous and I loved the sets which include creating the House of Lords debating chamber on stage complete with Woolsack. And if some of the singing seems a bit distant and diction not always quite clear well, it doesn’t really detract from the pleasure of the evening. It’s good to see (and hear) G&S done with such imaginative freshness in a way which doesn’t jettison the traditions. We even got a couple of encores – in the time honoured way.
It was also a week in which I attended and took part in two music rehearsals and went to two classical music concerts – one to review and one just for pleasure and to be supportive of local musicians. It’s all part of the same mix of course: performing arts alive well and working their magic whether it’s a magnificent pro show in a huge space like the Coliseum or a handful of indifferent enthusiasts enjoying themselves in an Ashford church on a wet Monday evening. The downside of all this is that I’m not in enough to see much TV – but, as “they” say, you can’t have or do it all.
Rejoice with me at the sheer breadth, energy and healthy eclecticism of it all – especially if you’re feeling gloomy about the arts and their future.