Saturday, 14 July 2018

Being a Theatre Lover Without Going Broke: A Guide

A question I get asked a lot is: ‘how do you manage to go to the theatre so often?’ I always want to respond: ‘how do you manage WITHOUT going to the theatre so often?’ Like, how do people manage to process and escape the world and their own thoughts without the theatre? I don’t understand.

But let’s be honest, no one who asks me that question is after a philosophical lecture on the power of theatre. The question they’re actually asking is ‘how do you afford to go to the theatre so often?’ It’s a fair question, it’s not the cheapest of hobbies. And if you only ever read the frequent articles about top price premium tickets in the big West End shows I can totally get why you would think that going more often than one or twice a year is the preserve of Russian oligarchs and the Queen. 

I don’t claim to be an expert in theatrical bargain hunting, but I do go a fair bit and have yet to go bankrupt. Below are my top ten tips should you wish to do likewise. 

Ten tips, and a dose of realness too. Because of course the main reason I can afford to go to the theatre so often is because, relatively speaking, I’m in an enormously privileged position. Don’t punch me, I’m not saying I’m rich or anything and this is not a god awful humblebrag of any kind. It’s just a fact that life has, to date, dealt me the sort of hand which allows me to splash money on theatre tickets. I have a job that pays reasonably and lets me leave on time; I live close enough to London to be able to get there in less than an hour and for less than £15 but far enough away that I’ve managed to buy my own place and so avoid the frankly obscene South East England rental market; I don’t drive or smoke or drink much in the week; I don’t have any dependents to worry about; I’m the sort of white, middle class, able bodied, cis gender person that theatre is still made for and marketed to to a depressing extent; I have, in short, a level of disposable income and fortuitousness of circumstance which I fully appreciate I am very lucky to have. But, y’know, I love a bargain as much as the next person so on we go.

1. Know your limits
Just don’t spend too much. Literally, just don’t do it. Super helpful advice right? To expand, what I mean is know roughly how much you have/want to spend on theatre each month and know roughly what tickets you want to buy each month. From there the maths roughly does itself. It will force you to make some tough decisions sometimes (sorry, The King and I, I just don’t want you enough) but it is the number one thing you can do to stop yourself going massively into your overdraft. I do this religiously, changing my rough amount of spend every month depending on what else is going on in my life and how important everything is relative to everything else. This month I’m reigning the spending in - after a super spenny drop on new season NT tickets last month - because there’s other stuff going on in my life that I value more than theatre (there are a few things). So my ticket buying has been limited to The Jungle (£20) and A Monster Calls (£5 - FIVE POUNDS). I get my theatre fix, but still have money to spend on the rest of life. Win win. 

2. Do your research
A related point, but knowing what’s on, what’s coming, what’s about to go on sale and what anything you’re interested in will cost is the backbone of successfully not bankrupting yourself. Join all the mailing lists, follow all the social accounts, have a look at as much prior info about shows you want to see as you can (including, crucially, price bands and seating charts) before payday. A top tip within a top tip here is not to be put off by headlines about top price tickets, because even the most expensive shows will have some ok-priced tickets. You just need to know where to look for them. In many cases it’s honestly just as simple as looking on the theatre’s website itself and seeing what’s behind that scary headline. 

3. Discount schemes are your friend
Basically every show these days has some way of getting cheap tickets, even the West End big guys. The biggest and still the best is the NT’s Travelex £15 season, a particular joy because it includes so many tickets and there’s no such thing as a bad seat at the Nash. Loads of places have particular discounts for all you young bastards too (off the top of my head, the Hampstead and the Bridge are particularly good for the under 30s). Loads of West End shows have a cheap lottery in some form or another for certain seats at each performance - I’ve heard particularly good things about the one for Hamilton (whose seats generally, by the way, are nowhere near as expensive as people seem to think). 

4. Previews? Also your friend
Previews - shows before the production is officially shown to the press and declared open - are a gift for budgeting. And whilst it’s true that a show can change entirely between first preview and opening night, the fact is most don’t. The quality of the performance is rarely less than utterly polished (early previews sometimes run a bit long) and there’s a certain thrill to seeing a show when the actors are still feeling their way into it. It’s pretty standard now for most new productions to offer a reduction across all their ticket prices; not by a huge amount but by enough to be helpful. Of particular note are The Old Vic’s £10 Previews which are always great. Only available five weeks in advance, half the OV’s huge auditorium is available for £10 including many of the usually top price stalls tickets. Utterly bargainous.

5. Book really early or really late
Cheap day seats (ie seats bought on the day for that day) are increasingly a thing now. Not just the ones you have to physically queue up and pay for in person (honestly, who has time?) but the lotteries I just mentioned are often done that way too. New tech has really made the day seat a more attractive option. Schemes like the Donmar’s Klaxon and NT’s Friday Rush allow you to buy cheap tickets for the following week’s shows if you like a bit more advance planning. If you’re like me though and want stuff booked weeks if not months in advance then booking as soon as you can is a great option too: the earlier you book the more options you’ll have. Booking on the day tickets are released is my bag and has been how I’ve got probably 80% of my best deals (£15 seats for every single Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and Michael Grandage West End season show, for example) If you can book in a pre-sale period, more’s the better. Which brings me on to...

6. Membership schemes are worth it
Ok, so this adds another layer of cost but theatre membership schemes are worth considering. Basically, you give them money, they give you early access to ticket sales (and other nice things). I am, somewhat ridiculously, a member of three theatres now: the NT, the Old Vic and the Bridge (who do a young membership package up to age 35 for which I love them dearly). I always use their members’ pre-sale and it’s landed me some seriously good seats across the board. Yes they’re a (small) investment but they do yield a return if you use them right. Plus you get the nice fuzzy feeling of supporting the theatre generally. Can’t justify the cost? All of them can be bought as gifts - one for your Christmas list perhaps? My parents have been buying my OV membership as a Christmas gift for years now.

7. TodayTix
I’ve generally tried to avoid singling out individual companies, mailing lists etc because in truth I use so many that that would be impossible. But one thing that I am religiously devoted to and use all the time is the TodayTix theatre ticket app. It’s amazing for things like Rush tickets (you tweet about a show to access cheap, last minute tickets), lotteries, pre-sales, flash sales and booking fee discount days. It’s also incredibly easy to use and they don’t sell seats with restricted views so you have a bit of confidence about what you’re buying even when it’s a dirt cheap ticket. It’s such a great app and has delivered for me so many times. I love it (and no, this is is no way a sponsored post, just to be clear). 

8. Places other than London exist
If you can get out of London, you’ll find your money goes so much further. Think about regional theatres (that more Londoners don’t come out to Chichester in my neck of the woods is baffling to me), think about touring productions, think about theatres outside zones 1-4. By way of example, I saw a production of This House in the West End on which I happily splashed out (see below) £65 for a third row stalls seat. A marginally better third row stalls seat for the subsequent tour of the same This House at the Yvonne Arnauld theatre in Guildford came to £34.50. Admittedly the West End version was better cast, but still. A £30 difference is not to be sniffed at. And I’m not sure I’ve ever spent more than £20 on a ticket at Chichester, including good front stalls seats for all of their musicals (I have Me and My Girl coming up next month, front row stalls seats at £10 each). This isn’t an option for everyone, or for every production, but it’s worth considering when you can.

9. Have no friends
Look, getting a cheap ticket is easier than getting four cheap tickets. Or, if you’re less anti-social than me, getting four separate cheap tickets and meeting up in the bar at the interval is easier than getting four cheap tickets together and sitting in the dark not talking to each other until you go to the bar in the interval. Whichever, they both work. If you’re happy to not sit with your friends then The Bush’s excellent Count Me In scheme is for you: you give them £10 per (guaranteed) seat, they allocate them wherever there are gaps to be filled, valid on all performances in their no-bad-seats main house. I wish more places did this sort of thing.

10. Splash out sometimes
There is a section of theatre Twitter that will consider this heresy, but if you’re really excited about a production for whatever reason and want to splash out on a really good seat then fucking do it. As long as you can ultimately afford it, it’s honestly the best to go and sit with the rich kids sometimes. Don’t feel guilty about it, don’t feel the need to explain or justify it, just enjoy it. I do this a few times a year. Recent examples, all of which were amazing experiences, include Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (my birthday present to myself), This House (because James Graham), The Hairy Ape (because Bertie Carvel) and Ink (because James Graham AND Bertie Carvel and sweet fuck I was so happy). I don’t normally pay more than £30 at most for a single ticket, but if it’s something I really want to see up close then I’m happy to. All of the above were £45 - £65 and I regret absolutely nothing about spending that money. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Best of London Theatres

Theatres as buildings and places to just, like, go regardless of whether you’re seeing a show wasn’t really something I thought about until I moved down south and my theatre-going expanded beyond the West End.

Because, let’s be honest, West End theatres are not great. They’re crowded, they’re uncomfortable and the facilities they provide are all to do with raising revenue and very little to do with actually providing a nice experience for their audience. AND THEY HAVE TOO FEW LADIES’ TOILETS BY A FACTOR OF ABOUT A MILLION. (I feel strongly about this. I make no apologies for mentioning it many times in the next few hundred words.) In some senses, I do get why this is the case. Another thing that the majority of West End theatres are is old. They occupy prime, expensive, but virtually unalterable real estate that restricts what they can do even if their owners and operators have the best will in the world. West End theatres are a means to an end: you go there to see a show, and maybe buy a drink and a programme. And, at the end of the day, that’s fine. 

Away from the West End though, theatres are often so much more than an auditorium with a bar and (not enough) toilets stuck on. Thought has gone into their design. Thought has gone into the service and facilities they offer their audiences. Thought has gone into their programmes. Thought has gone into their wine lists and their ice creams and their coffee. 

More of this sort of thing, I say. The appeal of the theatre should not begin and end in the auditorium. They should be nice places to be. Here are some that I think are...

Best Building
I mean, it’s got to be The Bridge. No contest. London’s newest theatre is also it’s most beautiful by a country fucking mile. 

Not only that, though, it’s the most functional: plenty of front of house space, WiFi, amazing food and drink offerings (of which more later), water fountains and - that holiest of holy grails - plentiful ladies’ toilets. Check out the downstairs ones for some of the most beautiful loos, and best selfie lighting, in London. Shout out too to The Victoria Palace, which has been transformed by Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-Hamilton renovation. This shows what can be done with a traditional, old building if someone is willing and able to chuck bucket loads of cash at it. The bars are huge and gorgeous, the layout is sensible, the toilets are luxurious (and there’s almost enough of them) and the decor is stunning. The one West End (well, ish) theatre I actively enjoyed the interval in. Their white wine is pretty solid too.

Best Building to Hang Out in During the Day
Bit of a niche one, but as someone who often needs somewhere to work in London during the day this is important to me. It’s all about the good old National Theatre here. Excellent free WiFi, loads of seats and quiet spaces to hide in, loads of food and drink options, plenty of loos, inside and outside space. I spend a lot of my life here. Like, a statistically relevant percentage. It’s a bit further out, but I also love spending time in The Bush. Their library cafe is adorable, their WiFi reliable and the vibe so chilled. Surely the nicest theatre terrace in London too.

Let’s Talk Food
I have a lot of opinions about theatres and food, and have done extensive research to back them up. Especially on the wine. You can trust me on these recommendations guys.

I love a theatre restaurant, and the NT’s counter service Kitchen and the Young Vic’s sit down The Cut are my favourites. Kitchen is great value and reliably nice food. It’s not super exciting, but it’s solidly good. It’s especially good for cake: watch out for the amazing pistachio and rose Chelsea buns, the size of your head scones and my perennial favourite lemon polenta cake. The Cut is more expensive but also better. Their waiting staff are always lovely too. I recommend their tapas, their inevitably implausible-sounding-but-successful veggie burger (the beetroot and quinoa with plantain, pea hummus and cheddar cheese is my favourite) and the chocolate fondant. When they have it on, the peanut butter hot chocolate is a thing of beauty also.

When it comes to interval snacks there’s only one game in town: The Bridge’s fresh baked madeleines. Believe the hype - they’re off the chart good. I could eat them forever. 

If you’re an ice cream loyalist, then head to The Almeida for the best selection (or, if you’re a bit further afield, The RSC in its Stratford Upon Avon home). The best wine selection is at The Bridge (pricey but worth it, their whites are particularly good) and The Donmar (it’s sauv blanc is great). Need waking up? The Bridge and The Bush have the best coffee. Get an almond latte at the former and an oat latte at the latter. The NT has the best hot chocolate. The Young Vic has the best teas. 

Hanging around for a post-show drink? Mark’s Bar at The Old Vic is a deeply strange idea (an open to the public bar in the front of house area of their circle) but does amazing, strong as fuck cocktails. It’s not cheap but it is very good. The NT’s Understudy is a great option too. It’s selection of wines and on tap beers is the absolute best. It also sells sweets by the glass and who doesn’t want that?

Nicest Staff
Oh hai The Bush. I’ve never met a member of staff there who is anything less than extremely helpful and unremittingly cheerful. It makes a bigger difference than I think some theatres realise - especially to people who go to a lot of shows.

Best Programmes
If you’re a programme person - and I very much am - then shelling out £4+ for, essentially, a booklet of adverts for other shows is the most crushing thing (looking at you, Really Useful Theatres). But if you actually want some useful reading around a production then your £4 is well spent at the NT and The Bridge. The latter are my particular favourites as the design is so nice and the people they get to write their programme essays are always so interesting - Tristram Hunt for Young Marx and Mary Beard for Julius Caesar were both great and the short story for My Name Is Lucy Barton is probably my favourite bit of writing in a programme ever. The NT is the original best practice programme: functional, good content, good photos. A large portion of my flat is occupied by my collection of them. Their rehearsal photo selection is always the best in the business. 

Best Shopping
Ok, so this is a less intrinsic part of the theatre experience but I wanted to include it purely because I love the NT Bookshop so much and I want that recorded. Show merch, a more or less unbeatable selection of playtexts (not just for NT shows) and other thespy reading material, some beautiful design pieces, greetings cards, stationary, programmes, industry magazines and other assorted cool stuff. I could live here. 

So, that’s my list but what have I missed? Or where have I missed? Think all of my recommendations are nonsense? Tell me! Especially if you know where the good wine’s at.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Theatre Review: Jellyfish

Here’s a phrase I have never typed before tonight: I’m on the train home from the theatre and I have sand in my shoes. Not, like, some wanky metaphorical sand. Real, actual, IRL, sand.

Honestly it’s quite annoying but, since it was placed there by the absolute babes at the Bush Theatre, I’m going to let it slide. 

Regular readers will know about, and likely be bored of, my love for The Bush. Their programming is so bold and so consistently well executed that it’s hard not to love them. I’ve never seen a bad show there. Until this production, ‘there’ has only meant their main house. But I can now add their dinky (60 seat, by my count) and adorable Studio to my list as well. Dinky, adorable AND AIR CONDITIONED I should say, given the UK is currently melting.

Studio theatres are exciting and also dangerous spaces in my experience. Put a bad show in one and you have an absolutely excruciatingly awful night for all concerned. Put a mediocre show in one and the effect is not much better. But a good show, or a great show, with a cast and creative team who are fully committed to their studio is more or less the best thing. Jellyfish, The Bush’s current offering, is very much in the latter category.

Written by Ben Weatherill, Jellyfish tells the story of Kelly and Neil, who meet and fall in love amidst the glamour of Skegness. Kelly’s mum, Agnes, does not approve of Neil. What makes Jellyfish more than just your average love story/family drama is that Kelly happens to have Down’s Syndrome, thus opening up a whole other level of complicated emotional and ethical meat for the characters and the plot to chew on. Honestly, I loved this play. On quality of writing alone, it may actually be my favourite Bush production so far. It’s funny. It’s charming (not a word I would have much associated with the Bush before). It has so much heart and humanity. It’s complicated. It’s uplifting. It has characters who are lovable and flawed. It has awkward dancing to Tom Jones. 

It’s also incredibly ambitious, which I think I love most of all. The issues it deals with are difficult and complicated, especially its discussion of the rights and expectations of people with disabilities (as well as Kelly, there is also Dominic who has Asperger’s). The relationship between Kelly and Agnes is key to this: Agnes terrified for her (grown up) daughter and the sort of life she’ll have, Kelly longing for independence and the ability to make her own choices and mistakes. The inevitable discussions around whether Agnes wishes she’d have known that Kelly had Down’s Syndrome before she was born, and what Agnes would have done if she did. Choices, the lack of them and the importance of the right to have them. In the wrong hands, this could have been a disastrous area for a playwright to probe but Weatherill does so with such sensitivity - which is different, by the way, to saying he doesn’t have anything important or uncomfortable to say - that it totally won me over. In its portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship, it’s a really interesting piece to see so soon after My Name Is Lucy Barton too. 

The production supporting Weatherill’s play is superb. First of all, sand notwithstanding, I am fully obsessed with Amy Jane Cook’s clever, bold and vivid design. Not only is it an evocative and pleasingly literal homage to the Great British Seaside, it’s also extremely clever. Bits of the stage pop up and pop out to become benches and baths. An apparently discarded old arcade sign turns out to actually be a table. It’s just so cool. Even the tonnes of sand that carpet the theatre are cool when they’re not mostly in my fucking shoes. Tim Hoare is fantastically assured in the director’s chair and his production is brave and ballsy but also touchingly naturalistic (it didn’t hugely surprise me when I read that he had worked on The Ferryman too). Jamie Platt’s lighting is gorgeously effective. I loved the use of neon signs and an accompanying colour pallet. 

The show is cast wonderfully. Sarah Gordy, as Kelly, is endlessly charming and watchable. It’s little surprise to read in accompanying press for the show that the part was pretty much written for her. Frankly you don’t have to read that, it’s fairly obvious from her performance and general swagger. Nicky Priest is a fantastically funny Dominic. He gets the majority of the best lines and delivers them with utter relish. Penny Layden has arguably the most difficult part as Agnes and is superb, an absolute class act. Touching, infuriating, never not sympathetic. My favourite performance though came from Ian Bonar as shy, geeky and lovable Neil. I just couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on stage and he gives a performance of such detail (the joys of a studio) and humanity that I fell in love with him a little bit. It’s a great foursome, a particular joy to watch in such a small space.

I think I’ve said before that I’m getting a bit bored of writing nice things about shows at The Bush and yet here we are. Again. Jellyfish is such a lovely, complex, inspiring thing. If you’re feeling a bit blue about the world - and if you’re not then you’re not paying attention - then this is the play for you.

Jellyfish is in the Studio at The Bush until 21st July.

My seat for Jellyfish was kindly provided by The Bush and I attended press night. There’s no numbered seating (it’s unreserved but no sight line issues to worry about) and my seat immediately in front of the tech would normally cost £20.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Theatre Review: Fun Home

A phrase I don’t often utter when leaving the theatre of an evening is ‘I just wish it had been longer’. Because if there’s one thing I love more than the theatre, it’s getting home at a reasonable hour and having a cup of tea.

And yet, here’s Fun Home. The Young Vic’s transfer of the unlikely Broadway smash clocks in at a sprightly one hour and forty minutes straight through (ie sans interval). I would happily have sat through twice that length. I longed for a second act.

Fun Home tells the autobiographical story of cartoonist Alison Bechdel growing up in a family who’s stock in trade was a funeral (fun) home and coming to terms with her sexuality whilst her father simultaneously fails to do exactly the same. It is adapted, quite brilliantly, from a comic. Not the natural source for a musical perhaps, but this clever, clever show is not deterred. It 100% resists the temptation to simplify Bechdel’s story and its uniquely comic-y structure. Just as in the comic (or any comic) there is no completely straightforward, chronological narrative. Rather, there are several. Three ages of Alison appear in the show: present day (Alison), college student (Medium Alison) and child (Small Alison). Present day Alison is on stage at almost all times and acts as a narrator, guiding us through the vignettes from her life that form the show. It totally works as both a narrative structure and as a way of staying true to the feel of the source material. 

It also provides the emotional heart of an extraordinarily emotionally complex show. There’s something about Alison watching Medium and Small Alison try and navigate what she knows, but of course they don’t, is coming that makes all the happy bits happier and the sad bits so much sadder. Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics provide the meat on these structural bones - and what gorgeous meat it is. This show is so full of warmth and heart, and properly laugh out loud humour, but never shies away from its portrayal and exploration of profound and difficult topics. It is peopled by characters who refuse to be boxed in and are human in all aspects, good and bad. The honesty of Bechdel’s source material and Kron’s adaptation is incredible. Jeanine Tesori provides the music, and it’s gorgeous, unique (so many styles!) and memorable in a sort of quiet way. This is altogether a deep and moving show, its themes of sexuality, repression, identity, regret and loss are huge, and it really shows how powerful a musical can be in the right hands. 

It’s amply shown off in a fantastic production - which is surely and quickly headed for the West End - which has transported the majority, if not all, of the original Broadway creative team to the Young Vic. Sam Gold’s direction is so sensitive and surefooted. His confidence in the piece and his vision of it shine through, especially in the pacing. For all that it’s short, this is not a production which is afraid of taking a breath, often quite a long one. David Zinn’s design is so clever and makes amazing use of the space, expanding and contracting it as the plot and the atmosphere demand. I loved the way the Bechdel family home folds out like Barbie’s Dream House and the use of the revolve to keep the action ticking along is masterful. Ben Stanton’s lighting is gorgeous, especially during (Alison’s father) Bruce’s final solo. That scene - no spoilers - contains some of the best and most evocative, of both mood and physical object, lighting I’ve seen in London for ages. 

A small but perfectly formed ensemble rounds out this beaut of a show. They’re all superb (let’s take a minute to gape in amazement at the talent and self assurance of the three child actors in the cast for a fucking start) but I particularly enjoyed Kaisa Hammarlund’s gift of an Alison. Despite being on stage more or less all night, she often doesn’t have much to say but can convey so much whilst just standing silently and watching the action that it really doesn’t matter. When she does get something to say or sing she’s even better. I just adored her. As dad Bruce, Zubin Varla is heartbreaking. It’s a difficult part, but Varla’s Bruce is both completely sympathetic and an utter shit; honest and, ultimately, a deeply tragic character. Newbie Eleanor Kane is a knockout Medium Alison, all nerves and angles and potential. The ever excellent Jenna Russel is superb as Alison’s touchingly stoic mum Helen. I would have loved to hear much, much more from her. 

Which sort of brings me back to my original point. Fun Home is a great show: touching, unique and deeply humane in a way that feels so needed at the moment. I just wish it had been longer.

Fun Home is at the Young Vic until 1st September (if it doesn’t get a West End run after that I’ll eat everyone’s hats). Ticket availability is not huge, deservedly.

My seat for this one was M57 upstairs, which has a slightly restricted view. Probably explains why it only cost £10 though which, yes, I paid. I saw the show in preview.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Theatre Review: Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth said to her marriage counsellor (possibly), my relationship with Macbeth is difficult.

I read it at school, where obviously I hated it, but subsequently it’s become one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In performance it’s been responsible for my absolute best theatrical experience ever, in Ken Branagh’s perfect Manchester International Festival production which was completely magical and which, I’m rapidly concluding, should have been the one and only time I saw the play staged. On the other hand, the awful interpretative dance version the Young Vic decided to stage a couple of years ago (forever known as MC Banquo and The Unitard Witches in my circle of friends) remains one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on stage. 

Enter, pursued by a shit ton of bin bags, Rufus Norris’ new production at the National Theatre. On paper, this production should have been a dream: directed by Norris and starring the formidable pairing of Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. On stage, though, it’s more of a drug addled nightmare. It is, hands down, the ugliest production of any play I’ve seen, ever. It looks ugly, it sounds ugly. It is overwhelmingly, distractingly, bafflingly ugly. Possibly even fugly, I’m not sure where the line is drawn. 

Plot-wise, Macbeth is always going to be fun and certainly not boring. But the version of the text used in this production is just - bear with me whilst I consult my thesaurus for synonyms of ugly - deeply unattractive. So much of the more poetic verse, and there’s some beautiful stuff in Macbeth, is cut. So much is chopped and changed and fucked around with for no fathomable reason. Even some of the iconic stuff (there is no ‘eye of newt’ to be found here, unless that’s what they’ve used to glue the hideous set together) is gone - in the end a small mercy given what’s been done to the Weird Sisters here but an odd decision nonetheless. And not one that helps the production.

Not that there is much that could help this production, frankly. I’m not honestly sure what Rufus Norris was aiming for with his ‘today, post-civil war’ (between Scotland and Norway?) setting but whatever it was he hasn’t hit it. I can’t find anything about the direction he’s taken his production in that I like. It looks hideous, the design - from set to props to costumes - is visually unappealing and makes no sense. It sounds terrible, in its treatment of the text and the horrid music and pointless ‘new instruments’. The treatment of many of the characters is downright odd, especially the Witches who, stripped of most of their dialogue, are reduced to a pointless sideshow, their scenes almost unwatchable. Even the pacing of the show is wrong. Why does the action have to stop in ridiculous freeze frame every time Macbeth delivers a soliloquy? How has this ended up being the longest Macbeth I’ve seen despite all the vicious cuts to the text? Bluntly, it just doesn’t work. It smacks of directorial arrogance too. 

I really feel for the cast, trying to salvage something from the flaming wreckage of this show. And they are trying too. They are trying so hard. You can feel them fighting for it and, to the extent it’s possible, they do save the day. They make this horror show watchable. Occaionally one of them makes it good. You can’t help but respect them for their effort. For me they actually succeed, insofar as they make this only the second worst Macbeth I’ve seen (sorry, Young Vic).

Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff have the toughest job here, as they are the most hamstrung by the production. Kinnear suffers from this in particular; his 100% unsympathetic and brutal Macbeth is far from his best performance, but what else could he do within the confines of Norris’ vision? When he does occasionally let fly a bit, he’s strong as ever. His ‘is this a dagger...’ in particular is really well done. Duff fares better, giving something more nuanced and deep, but Lady Macbeth is weirdly underused in this production. The best work, for me, is to be found elsewhere: Kevin Harvey’s charismtic Banquo, Patrick O’Kane’s earthy and tragic Macduff and Parth Thakerar’s earnest and confused Malcolm (the best scenes in the whole show are between the latter two for my money).

Let’s be real here, this production is a mess and Rufus Norris has to shoulder the blame for it. It is just unfathomably ugly. I really can’t stress that, or the impact it has, enough. And that’s ultimately his fault. The cast fight to make it work, as far as that’s possible, and they deserve credit and respect for that. This isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen at the NT, because of them, but that’s hardly a reason to go and see it.

Macbeth is in the Olivier at the NT, in rep, until 23rd June after which, remarkably, it will tour.

My seat, which regrettably I paid for, was C56 in the stalls. It was £15. 

Monday, 18 June 2018

Theatre Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Guys, I think I’ve found The One. No, not that The One. A more important The One: the play that was written specifically for me.

My Name Is Lucy Barton, currently playing at The Bridge, is an adaptation by Rona Munro (who I adore) of Elizabth Strout’s book of the same name. It tells part of the story of Lucy Barton, an American country girl who escapes a poor and traumatic childhood to make it as a successsful writer in New York. Lucy has chosen which part of her story to tell us, and it is that of a reunion with her almost estranged mother whilst Lucy recovers from a serious illness. Except it’s more than that, obviously. It’s really the story of what it means to be a child - as in, what it means to have parents - and the complicated mess of feelings inherent in that relationship. Whether we want to recognise them or not.

I loved this play. I cannot adequately tell you how beautiful I thought it was, how humane, how vividly drawn. I haven’t read the book (yet - I went out immediately after the show and bought it*) so I don’t know whether it’s Strout, Munro or, as I suspect, both to thank for this but my god they deserve fulsome thanks. There’s such technical deftness to it too, especially in the way it frequently flips between being laugh out loud funny and cry out loud sad within the space of a single line. It’s just an extraordinary thing. More so when you consider that it’s been adapted as a one woman play which contains at least three distinct character voices. 

Thematically, I found it astonishingly powerful. The depth with which it explores the parent-child relationship is incredible, moving and I rather suspect the sort of thing that many therapists earn a lot of money to discuss with their clients over months of sessions. It’s a profoundly moving piece, for me no more so than when it considers the many more or less inherent ways a child - particularly a child who’s moved away from their parents - has to deal with the guilt of separation. As a child who’s moved away, and an only child to boot, let me tell you: fucking hell it’s on the money. Frankly a bit too on the money. Leaving the theatre, I had to put my headphones in and turn my music up LOUD to shut out my interior monologue. Mild PTSD aside, this piece spoke to me, and made me feel much more deeply, in a way that no show has before. And I can’t shake it. Which is amazing. This is what great theatre is supposed to do. 

To the surprise of literally no one at this point, The Bridge’s production is pure class. Richard Eyre directs and is on the sort of form you expect from someone of his pedigree with his warm, generous and gorgeous production. He casts an eye of huge experience over procedings, steps back and allows the writing and the performance space to breathe. He adds nothing unecessary. There are no frills here, because no frills are required. That said, everything still looks and sounds stunning. Bob Crowley’s stripped back design - a bare thrust stage, just a chair, a hospital bed and a video screen for backdrop - is exactly the right amount of non-existent. Luke Hall’s beautiful video design fills said screen with simple, scene-setting imagery which is all the show needs. And when it doesn’t need them anymore, they are simply turned off. This is supremely confident work from a team who clearly recognise the talent of their writers and performer.

Speaking of whom, I can probably just end this post now by reminding you that the performer in question is Laura Linney. I mean, do you really need me to tell you she was good? She’s not just good, of course. She’s pretty much perfect. She thoroughly embodies all of the various characters that we meet - Lucy Barton, Lucy’s version of her mum, Lucy’s version of her doctor - but especially Lucy herself. It’s a performance of such warmth and heart and depth that I’d argue it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, and with Linney, unless there’s something broken in your soul. It’s a gift of a performance. An utter joy.

As is this whole production. It is, as I’ve already noted, a genuinely great piece of theatre and a genuinely great feat of theatre making. And I just really, really loved it. 

My Name Is Lucy Barton is at The Bridge until Saturday 23rd June, ie this Saturday. Tickets are now unsurprisingly sold out expect for returns and day seats. Get in that queue immediately.

My seat for this one was L54 in Gallery 1 which cost me £35. Worth noting that day seats are just £15. 

*If you wish to do the same, and purchase it from a theatre bookshop, The Bridge has sold out but the NT Bookshop hasn’t.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Theatre Review: An Octoroon

Occasionally, a show comes along that is so brilliantly mad and/or unclassifiable that you know that the resulting blogpost is going to be something of an ordeal, in the nicest possible way, to write.

Like, how do you communicate that you love a show - and crucially why you love it - when you struggle to explain it even in your head? If long form blogging is supposed to be, and I believe it is, the way you would describe a show if you were talking about it down the pub then how do you write the equivalent of tipsily shouting at your friends ‘I love it and I will fight you if you disagree’? Let’s find out together shall we...

An Octoroon, recently produced by Richmond’s lovely Orange Tree Theatre and now thankfully brought into town for a run in the NT’s Dorfman, is a big, brave, boisterous piece by American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins that explores issues around race and drama. It’s also a weird, occasionally (intentionally?) baffling, never-seen-anything-like-this-before thing that I’m still processing days later. It’s achingly clever, and fabulously bizarre. I loved it, even the bits I don’t really know that I understood.

What BJJ - as he’s known in the character list, because things get meta from the very start - does so cleverly is create a show that speaks so eloquently of the historical challenges (to understate spectacularly) that black Americans faced, links them to those that they still face and - specifically - those faced by a black playwright. I enjoyed immensely the way he takes a well aimed sledgehammer to the idea that some (white) critics and (white) audiences have of ‘the black playwright’, ‘the black play’, ‘the black actor’ and ‘the black character’. The structure of the piece is so clever, the best use of the ‘play within a play’ setup that I’ve ever seen. Essentially, the idea is that we’re watching a modern black playwright’s update of a white playwright’s slavery-era race play, but, he informs us, said modern playwright can’t find white actors willing to be in it (because who wants to play a slaver?) and so he’s decided to play the white parts himself, in whiteface makeup. We then meet the original white playwright - Dion Boucicault, real life author of the original An Octoroon - who fills us in on how he can’t find enough black actors to play the black parts so his (Native American) assistant will be blacking up to play one whilst Boucicault himself will be painting himself red to play a Native American Chief. 

It’s a bold and challenging idea which could be so, so tacky were it not for the skill of BJJ’s writing. There is not a single word in his script that is throwaway or unnecessary. Everything is planned, weighted and reasoned to the extent that it seems 100% not to be. An Octoroon is very funny - it is, at its heart, a satire - but it is also very serious and neither of these things are ever lost sight of. When it gets a bit meta, where things could get very pretentious indeed, it keeps its feet firmly on the ground through the play within a play structure and the use of the characters of BJJ and Boucicault as narrators who puncture any notions of luvviness and OTT theatricality immediately. A great example is in the final scenes of the play where they explain the nature of the ‘sensation scene’ and why all the big effects and melodrama are kind of nonsense that deserve to be dismantled even as the play with a play indulges in them. It’s a great sequence in a great play, much better than my shitty explanation suggests, and I totally fell for it.

It is matched by an equally strong production. Director Ned Bennett delivers something so sure footed, confident and innovative; by far the most innovative thing I’ve seen at the NT I think. Georgia Lowe’s design is sparse but incredibly effective and employs some great theatrical tricks for our authors to play with and explain. Elliot Griggs’ lighting is incredible, especially his counterintuitive and liberal use of darkness (usually complete darkness, even sans emergency exit signs) which is so disorientating and sometimes quite threatening. Strobe and bright red lights are used to similar effect elsewhere. It’s a perfect companion for a play which is equally disorientating at times. Theo Vidgen’s music is great and evocative, especially the choice to use a single live cellist on stage in the production (Kwesu Edman does a great job as said cellist). In a complicated and fast moving, literally, production Ivan Blackstock’s movement direction is also worthy of mention. All of this combines to give the production, much like the play, an atmosphere all of its own. And, amazingly, despite the fact I was sat in an allegedly restricted view seat in the almost always restricted view heavy Dorfman there are no sight line issues!

A small cast of eight, almost all of whom do at least double duty and, I think, all of whom are direct imports from the Orange Tree production, round out an exceptional piece of work. There are many highlights - Vivian Oparah’s thoroughly modern slave Minnie, Kevin Trainor bringing exactly the right amount of ham to his wacky collection of parts (including Boucicault), Cassie Clare’s tap dancing rabbit skills (no, really) - but the show belongs to Ken Nwosu who stars as BJJ and the two white leads of his play. Nwosu is extraordinary, barely offstage and, for much of the second act, playing as one of his characters against the other. It’s a feat of memory, energy and physicality which is pretty much unique. He is so confident, so sympathetic, so charismatic and so flat out talented. It’s one of the performances of my theatrical year, no question. 

Overall, An Octoroon is a joy. An occasionally baffling, always surprising, completely unique joy. Though I now regret even more not experiencing it in the tiny Orange Tree, I’m so glad the NT has given it an extended lifespan because my god does it deserve one. And I will fight you if you disagree.

An Octoroon is in the Dorfman at the NT until 18th July. Tickets are mostly, but not completely, sold out - grab one now if you can.

I sat in seat P62 in the circle for this one and paid £18 for the privilege. This seat claims to be restricted view, but it’s absolutely not. I saw the show whilst it was in previews.