Talking Theatre – Double Podcast Bonanza

Somehow slipping through the net towards the end of Summer was the latest in my occasional updates from the world of podcast. Brought to the public as ever by Tim Watson at the (As Yet Unnamed) London Theatre Podcast, this week brings a double bill of updates covering musicals from Kinky Boots, Dusty and Thoroughly Modern Millie, gritty new writing in And Then Come The Nightjars, less gritty writing in Hatched ‘n Dispatched.

And of course an inevitably in depth look at the mania surrounding a certain Mr Cumberbatch in a certain play by a certain playwright.  a long diversion   This week we cast our eyes other musicals, early Russian naturalism and ancient Greek tragedy. An eclectic mix as ever.

You can listen to Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hamlet here: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

You can listen to Kinky Boots, Hatched ‘n Dispatched, Dusty, The Man Who Had All The Luck and Here Come The Nightjars: As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast 

Warning: This episode contains plenty of Benedict Cumberbatch related discussion.

Enjoy (and, as always, thoughts and feedback are welcome)

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“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Hamlet – Barbican Theatre, until 31 October 2015 (returns and day tickets only)

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude, / Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes”

Shakespeare, as is so often the case, provides the perfect introduction to the matter. He may have been giving voice to Claudius’ concern about how to deal with Hamlet following the death of Polonius, but these fifteen words pithily capture the frenzy surrounding Benedict and the Bard.

Whilst I do not intend to rehash the countless articles, Twitter-debates and journalistic etiquette that preceded opening night, one cannot ignore the implications of the media circus for the production. That the show was going to sell tickets was never in doubt, but the collective madness that took hold shocked everyone. Cumberbatch may be a star name but the West End is hardly lacking in this department; Oscar winner and genuine Hollywood A-lister Bradley Cooper could be seen in his boxers in The Elephant Man, while John Goodman and Damien Lewis are flexing their stage muscles in Mamet. Both shows sold well but not close to the stratospheric demand for Hamlet.

I disregard the casual elitism of those who seem to fear the masses will come bearing placards professing their undying love, wolf-whistle the sweet prince and general treat the experience like feeding time at the zoo. My view is that if just one-tenth of the near 40,000 people who bought tickets decide that theatre might be for them then I don’t really care if the only reason they had for going was because they live in a house built of discarded copies of Sherlock fanzines.

However we must consider how audience expectations and the surrounding pressures may have impacted on the production. In the theatre we allow the illusion of being outside of reality, but it would be naïve to believe that Lyndsey Turner, Benedict Cumberbatch and all others involved did not feel the weight of hype pressing down on them. Productions face a difficult problem when the audiences’ focus is so clearly on one man; they are attempting to perform Hamlet the play, but many are watching for Hamlet the man.

<<Continue to full review>>

Bloggers, Press, Twitter-spats and Facebook-cliques. Or how to cause offence without really trying

As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the vast majority of blogs are read by not many people. That doesn’t reduce their value. If people are reading what you have to say, and gaining something from it then does it matter if it is 10 people or 10,000. Brand recognition, quality of writing, length of service or knowing how to game google; whatever the reason, there are few sites that hoover up the vast majority of web clicks searching for reviews.

This blog has always been comfortable with its hit count (its not the number of clicks that matters but the number of repeat visitors, ooh-er missus etc etc). And anyone who has bothered to read anything on the site will note that it contains an almost perverse desire to write in a style entirely out-of-keeping with the move to Buzzfeed listicles and short-form content designed to be read through the latest phone gadgetry.

Equally there has been a conscious desire to avoid giving star ratings. The classic 5* rating is a ridiculously unsubtle device for providing a quality rating (assuming equal banding, the difference between a 3* and 4* show could either be 1 or 39 percentage points; hardly an equal assessment of quality) and reading many many blogs, I am convinced that very few would hold true to Gaussian distribution patterns come the end of the year. Other factors do come into play (going to see shows you are more likely to like) but given a theatre review should help people make an informed decision on whether to see a show, it is hardly helpful if everything you see is a 5* classic.

Friends have called me a tough reviewer but that is because I see a lot of ‘good’ shows, and so a 3* rating for me would be indicative of a ‘good’ show. This year I have seen four shows I would definitely have given 5* to, and maybe another two that were on the cusp. However the primary reason this site doesn’t give star ratings is because people should take the time to read what it has taken the writer time to think about and write.

Ultimately its about personal choice. The web is brilliant because it doesn’t constrict you. There are no rules. This site has its own philosophy but it doesn’t seek to impose it on other people.

Yet there is also social convention. And here we get onto more unsure ground. Do we say that conventions do not apply on the web. This ventures into the land of the trolls. Most people feel that conventions, the unsaid rules that govern the functioning of society apply online. They might accept a certain loosening of the rules but we feel there are limits to this. Personal moral codes have no weight online but the majority of people would agree that issuing rape threats to female journalists for having the temerity to express an opinion is beyond the pale.

However these are the extremes. What about the everyday unwritten conventions of the blogging world. They may not matter to everyone, but break them and unleash the hellfire of Twitter upon you. And thanks to The Times, The Daily Mail and assorted publications, the journalist silly season has had the perfect content to bring this into the wider world in the form of the Barbican, the Benedict and the Bard. The preview is a theatrical convention that has held for years. You do not publish a review before press night because press night is the first night. That the media broke this is frankly ludicrous but the fall-out in the blogging community has been substantial and often quite illustrious.

The desire for the most clickbait-y post is understandable. But London theatre bloggers are a tight-knit community and breaking this code was never going to go down well. We are fully aware of the contempt and sneer that the likes of Dominic Cavendish and more ill-informed commentators hold us in. Lets not give them any more ammunition.

So the wonderful folks who have set up Theatre Bloggers (the soon-to-be-far-away Rebecca Felgate, the mysterious West End Wilma and doyenne of the South-East theatre scene, Sammi O’Neill) have come together to produce a set of blogging guidelines. These aren’t rules, they aren’t a charter, you won’t be excluded for not following every single one. Rather they are practical tips if you want your blog to have the veneer of professionalism (and if you don’t want that, then that’s ok too).

And just remember (jazz hands at the ready) – to paraphrase Matron ‘Mamma’ Morton – “when you’re good to theatre bloggers, theatre bloggers’ good to you”

Click here for the blogging guidelines.

Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.

Watch This! An anatomist of emotional pain

The signals have been there for a while – it probably started with the National  firing a warning shot off the bows with last year’s summer production of After the Dance at the National. Following that was Anne-Marie Duff’s barnstorming performance in Cause Celebre at the Old Vic; suddenly a star-filled, Trevor Nunn-fuelled Flare Path opens at the Haymarket and before you know it you’re in the middle of a full-blown set of centenary celebrations for one of the understated, and somewhat underrated, greats of 20th playwriting, Terence Rattigan.

A most enigmatic of figures who, like Noel Coward, was sidelined by the explosion in writing after Osborne’s Look Back In Anger blew away all the traditional conventions. However unlike Coward, Rattigan continued to write masterpieces in the form of Man and Boy and Cause Celebre.

BBC4 are shining the light on Rattigan, in which should be a fascinating look at a rather forgotten figure. Even better, current actor of the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch has been roped into host (naturally he must ‘go on a journey’, in this case visiting his own school, Harrow, where – surprise surprise – Rattigan was also a pupil)

Details: Thursday, 21:00 BBC4

Whose Frankenstein is it anyway?

Frankenstein : National Theatre, 14 April 2011

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein…or is it Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, wait a minute isn’t it Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? How about Nick Dear? He adapted the book after all. These questions are at the heart of what is essentially a solid, spectacular if slightly emotionally cold reworking of the classic ‘monster’ novel. This is a production overwhelmed at times by its celebrity. There can be few directors as hot in Hollywood right now as Danny Boyle. His versatility and formal inventiveness can be seen driving his work, from making a filmable version of Trainspotting through turning a story set in the Indian slums into a Hollywood smash (certainly no mean feat) before giving a true-life tale about a man who gets stuck by himself for 127 Hours a kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory shot in the arm (pun only marginally intended). Like many British film directors he has a strong grounding in the theatre and his return was always likely to be an ‘event’.

Could Boyle have returned to any other theatre but the Olivier? Where else could possibly have contained his whirlwind imagination? That vast, empty stage has stumped many previous directors. It is comically large, the actors appearing almost as matchstick men; sets that look as if they could have been pulled out of a Victorian dolls house. But part of the joy of the Olivier is seeing how they tackle the challenge. In the case of Frankenstein, having a soundtrack created by Underworld (another tick in the celebrity box) certainly helps. Their pulsing score drives much of the action and from the opening moment seems to be in tune with the heartbeat of the Monster (in this production, Jonny Lee Miller). It tones down but does not remove the darker beats of their best albums, and fills the theatre with a mechanical baroqueness. This is cathedral music as reinvented by the Futurists; it is thrillingly industrial and works in harmony with a set that seems to half an eye on the ever fertile steam punk market (how else to explain the emergence of a train seemingly assembled from cogs and random pieces of metal – a superb piece of theatre that is only let down by the questionably need for it in the plot.

The set makes full use of the Olivier’s malleability – the stage lifts and recedes as needed; to form cliffs, houses and a suitably windswept and remote Scottish island where Frankenstein retreats to build the Monster his mate. There seems little doubt that Boyle relishes the challenge of making an epic story work on an epic space. It also seems likely that, unlike some directors returning to theatre, Boyle is of that rare breed that has learnt from his work in film and seeks to apply that to the stage.

And in this lies the crux of the problem…<<Full Review continues here>>.