The week in theatre: Billy Elliot goes, School of Rock comes, Bugsy Malone returns

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So Billy Elliot is closing after 11 years — and some 4,600 performances in the West End — on April 9, 2016, and no sooner did Andrew Lloyd Webber premiere his latest musical School of Rock in Broadway last Sunday than the very next day he announced it will be coming to the London Palladium next autumn.

I’ve written about the latter here, dubbing Lloyd Webber “the ultimate showman among composers.” The show has marked a significant reversal in Lloyd Webber’s critical fortunes in New York, as I chronicle in the same piece. In the 1980s and into the early 90s — Lloyd Webber’s busiest era, creatively speaking, with six major titles opening, from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, with Song & Dance, Starlight Express, The Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love in between — the most powerful critic on Broadway was Frank Rich, and it can be safely said he was not a fan.

But even he had to grudgingly admit, in his book Hot Seat which collects the reviews he wrote for the New York Times between 1980 and 1993, exactly the years of Lloyd Webber’s biggest influence — that Cats “was in retrospect the most influential Broadway production of its era, proving that there was a bottomless tourist audience for a show that pushed spectacle over content and that indeed required virtually no knowledge of English to be appreciated, whether by young children or foreign visitors.”

Never mind the idea of spectacle over content; Rich never liked his music, either, declaring in his review of the Song half (Tell Me on a Sunday) in Song & Dance, “As is this composer’s wont, the better songs are reprised so often that one can never be quite sure whether they are here to stay or are simply refusing to leave.”

But last Monday Ben Brantley, now chief theatre critic of the New York Times, gave School of Rock (pictured left) the paper’s biggest vote of confidence in years. As he writes, “Of course, any show that serves up somber preadolescents springing to joyous life via music of their own making is bound to push buttons, especially if the kids don’t seem to be trying too hard. Me, I melted when two little girls started singing the backup chorus from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (one of many genial nods to classics). All the children are defined as distinct individuals but without excessive shtick. My personal favorite: the petite, poker-faced Evie Dolan as Katie the bass guitarist.”

Meanwhile, Billy Elliot – the show that helped Elton John to challenge Lloyd Webber’s crown as King of the British Musical — is closing at the Victoria Palace, to make room for the theatre’s long-planned refurbishment. As it is, the theatre has rather forlornly looked isolated in the middle of the massive building project across the road, so it has been an obstacle course to approach. But Billy Elliot (pictured at the top of this feature) is already set to be embarking on its first UK and Ireland tour in February (both will play concurrently for a while), and I would bet my bottom dollar that that tour will end up back in the West End. Having been streamlined for touring — the original production had to excavate the stage in order to accommodate its set — it would now fit more easily into any available theatre.

Still in the musicals corner, the stage version of Bugsy Malone, which re-opened the refurbished Lyric Hammersmith last April, is to return there next June for a 12 week summer season. I wanted to see it again, mainly to enjoy Drew McOnie’s choreography again, during its last run but never got around to it; now I can!

And Sunny Afternoon — which is now onto its second West End cast and in its second year at the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre — has announced it is to launch a UK national tour, kicking of at Manchester Opera House in August.

Finally, the filmed version of the recent Gypsy that starred Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose, is to be broadcast on December 27 on BBC4, as Playbill noticed that the show’s Facebook page had announced. I saw the show four times in the theatre (once at Chichester, and three more at the Savoy); now I can record it and watch it as often as I like!

Cumberbatch Hamlet breaks film box office record
The biggest play news of the week was of the breakthrough success of NT Live’s cinema broadcast of the Benedict Cumbatch Hamlet (pictured left) from the Barbican.  According to a report in The Stage, it has taken nearly £$3m at the U.K cinema box office alone — “more than the Michael Fassbender feature film Macbeth – with £2.93 million in takings compared to Macbeth’s £2.82 million. It also broke the record for largest global NT Live audience to date.”

And The Stage also reveals that, in terms of the secondary ticketing market, it was “was named the seventh most popular ticket for any entertainment or sporting event in 2015. Ticketing website Viagogo revealed the play was more in-demand than the England versus France Six Nations rugby match, though less popular than One Direction’s latest tour.”

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Mark Shenton
My Theatre Mates co-founder Mark Shenton is one of the UK’s leading theatre critics and correspondents, whose regular credits include LondonTheatre, Playbill.com and The Stage, where he is contributing editor. He chairs the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, and hosts the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, held at the Prince of Wales Theatre. He blogs independently at www.shentonstage.com and tweets @ShentonStage.
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Mark Shenton on FacebookMark Shenton on Twitter
Mark Shenton
My Theatre Mates co-founder Mark Shenton is one of the UK’s leading theatre critics and correspondents, whose regular credits include LondonTheatre, Playbill.com and The Stage, where he is contributing editor. He chairs the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, and hosts the annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, held at the Prince of Wales Theatre. He blogs independently at www.shentonstage.com and tweets @ShentonStage.

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