Food and Drink in the Theatre

Imelda Staunton has recently divided opinion by saying she thinks food and drink in the theatre should be banned. She cited the noise it creates as a distraction and wondered why people were unable to sit for an hour or two without the feeling the compulsion to eat. Are her comments fair? Is she right?

Many people enjoy an interval ice cream and so they may well disagree. Personally, I agree with Staunton. One of the annoyances of the theatre is hearing rustling papers or crunching crisps. The point of a live performance is that you are transported to another space, another world and become absorbed in a story. Any noise outside of the world on stage takes you out of it and breaks the illusion. Theatres are designed to carry sound so even when you think you are being quiet – you are not.

Will theatres be inclined to listen to opinion and ban food? I doubt it. The mark up on the products provides too much revenue to miss out on, revenue which goes to the running and management of these old and aging buildings.

What is the solution? Perhaps producers will offer the occasional opposite to relaxed performances, a performance where food and drinks are banned to illuminate the unnecessary distraction. Failing that, courtesy should prevail. After all, you wouldn’t go to work and sit in a meeting eating kettle crisps and giant buttons, so why would you at Imelda Staunton’s place of work?

The Braille Legacy – Charing Cross Theatre

Louis Braille is a name familiar to us all for inventing the system of raised dots that bears his name, allowing the blind to read. He is the subject of a new musical, The Braille Legacy,  currently playing at the Charing Cross Theatre,below the station of the same name.

His story takes place in an institution, in France and follows his formative years as a precocious student and the resistance of the ‘establishment’ to allow him to develop his system.

This musical by Sébastien Lancrenon and Jean-Baptiste Saudray, for me, lacked the necessary drama to warrant it being a musical. As the audience are familiar with Braille and what he did, the focus of the show is on how he did it and, the linear narrative meant that the story was, sadly, all too predictable. It was once said that the songs in musicals should come at the point where emotion reaches its zenith and there is no other option but to sing and use music rather than dialogue. The dynamics of this piece failed to provide the peaks and troughs, leaving the audience feeling rather flat.

Don’t get me wrong, the show does have its merits but I fear they lay away from the writing. The cast was superb, especially Jérôme Pradon as Doctor Pignier, the encouraging head of the institution, eventually forced out by his want of reform. Indeed his song, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the motto of Paris, was a highlight of the show.  The design was also very well executed. The monochromatic look of the piece, with a revolving set, was used by the director, to great effect.

Overall I am pleased to have seen this production however I feel that it doesn’t yet quite work as a musical and the story of Louis Braille may work better as a play.

(Late) Thoughts on Whisper House

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent addition to his theatre portfolio, The Other Palace, has a noble quest. Put simply, it is a place to develop and nurture new musical theatre writing. Working off a similar model used on Broadway, Lloyd Webber hopes that his venue will be able to allow for more diversity on the musical theatre scene and also develop emerging talent. Bravo!

Whisper House is the latest production to be staged in the main house, the second since the theatre was rebranded (formerly the St James’s). The production comes with a sound pedigree. Duncan Sheik, the show’s composer and co-lyricist also wrote the multi-award winning Spring Awakening – so we are in safe hands.

The first thing that you notice about the production is the bold design. Andrew Riley has created a sunken stage to emulate the design of a lighthouse. The space is both interesting and dramatic and gives you a flavour of what this new venue is all about. The shape of the space is not for your traditional musical.

Now we come to the story. Set in the 1940s in America, there is the threat of invasion from German U-boats in the harbour. Christopher, a small boy, is sent to live with his aunt after the death of his pilot father and his mother’s incarceration in an asylum. It soon becomes apparent the aunt is living with a dark secret which has something to do with the two ghosts who semi-narrate proceedings.

The promise that this piece is a ghost story, for me, never quite delivers. It feels somehow a naive concept, one that is never quite fulfilled. The historical story, with its own sense of fear and foreboding, I believe, is enough. Adding in the ghosts waters down the potential message which audiences could take away. After all, it’s a story set in America, with a threat from foreign countries and restrictions being imposed on immigrants. Sound familiar? If the story had focused on this element, the allegory would have been a better fit. But that, after all, what a developmental process is all about.

If the ghosts had to be part of the story, I would keep it to one – just the female ghost. The whole cast were excellent but Niamh Perry has immense stage presence which draws the eye. Her voice is also phenomenal, able to be both haunting and beautiful. If the ghosts needed to be there, I think a focus on the female character would have intensified the mystic and menace, especially in the scene where the ghosts beckon young Christopher into the water.

As well as Perry, Simon Lipkin’s performance as the Sheriff is noteworthy. The first half suffers a little from pacing issues, but that is rectified in act II, largely by Lipkin’s energy. He is interesting to watch and perhaps the most developed of the characters,

The music for the production is the star. It is a wonderful score, fitting to the story brilliantly. The band of seven works well together to produce a wonderful sound that fills the space but is never overpowering in such an intimate venue.

The show is enjoyable and is interesting in its construction. I would like to see the piece again once it has undergone the development as part of The Other Palace experience and see what comes out of this great experiment of Lloyd Webber’s.

Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Vaults

The Vaults is a unique performance venue, located in disused railway tunnels below Waterloo Station. With almost 30,000 sq ft of space, the scope and scale of productions it can house is immense. Les Enfant Terribles are presenting their reworked adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – an immersive adventure full of surprises and splendour. The script for this year’s production ofAlice’s Adventures Underground is 60 pages longer than the 2015 Olivier nominated show, giving audiences even more of an experience.

The journey into Wonderland begins right at the box office. The front of house area uses the original Tenniel illustrations as an influence and helps to ramp up the anticipation. The bar is stocked with a series of cocktails, all inspired by the story and each with a little twist of magic. This really is like no other theatre experience.

And that is what it is – an experience. When you go to the theatre, you are an observer, watching the action unfold on the stage. Here the cast and creative team have found a way to make a 152-year-old text seem fresh and engaging.  And there is no option to jut sit back and watch. As an audience, you are very much involved in the story and integral to its success.
Audience participation is often a red flag to many, something confined to the annual panto or tourist attraction, but here there is no scary dungeonesque experience, nor are you ever put in an uncomfortable position. The cast are wonderful at making sure everyone is engaged and enjoying the experience without it ever feeling threatening.

Having spoken with Samuel Wyer, the show’s designer, it is clear that this production has been a labour of love for all involved. The creative freedom permitted by Lewis Carroll’s text has allowed the creative team to work in a new, liberating style. The venue itself helps with atmosphere and setting but Wyer’s designs are something Carroll himself would be delighted by.

The 90 minutes you spend in Wonderland fly by and you long for the journey to continue. Every space is one in which you wish you could spend more time (always leave the audience wanting more!) and with so much to see, it adds to the wonder and mystery of the experience. With overlapping stories and an interweaving narrative, it also leaves the audience wanting to come back again and again to experience all permutations.

With every audience and every entry into wonderland being different, no two stories are ever quite the same, ensuring this production stays fresh, fun and fabulous.

Don Juan in Soho – Review

Don Juan is a character everyone is familiar with. The serial seducer smoothly making his way through life bouncing from mattress to mattress. Driven by the thrill of the chase, Don Juan’s primary objective is to acquire submission from his chosen quarry (even if he has to go as far as marrying them to get them to acquiesce.)

Patrick Marber’s revival production Don Juan in Soho is based on a 17th century Moliere comedy which itself is derived from a commedia dell’arte play. In commedia dell’arte, characters are archetypes, driven by a singular motive – such as money, food or lust. Marber’s Don Juan is indifferent to the chaos that follows in the wake of his conquests, always searching for his next conquest, the more challenging the better.

David Tennant takes on the titular character in this production portraying Don Juan as heir to an Earldom, the typical playboy aristocrat partying his way through his inheritance. While his moral behaviour is abhorrent, Tennant gives the character charm and appeal, seducing the audience. He becomes a loveable rogue rather than detestable. In spite of his indifference towards the women in his life, he readily jumps to the aid of a stranger being mugged and, at times, we see flashes of his humanity shine through. His insecurities of sleeping alone, his reluctance to let his faithful retainer resign, these events show the crutches he needs to support his extravagant lifestyle showing he needs other people (although he will never openly admit it.)

Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil to Tennant’s straight man. As Stan, Don Juan’s chauffeur and valet, he is permanently downtrodden, undervalued and ignored which Scarborough exploits for every comedic opportunity. He is the accomplice to Don Juan’s activities, basking in the seeming reflected success of his master’s efforts. Scarborough’s character is the one the audience sympathise with and perhaps even empathise. He is the ‘less attractive’, less successful of the double act. His performance is tremendous, portraying a character stuck between what is morally right and his close bond with the incorrigible Don Juan.

The show is fresh and contemporary, having been updated since its premiere a decade ago. There is the odd reference to contemporary events and politics smattered throughout the play but, mercifully, they are subtle and sparse which adds to their effect. Tennant’s rousing speech in the latter half of act II is a direct debunking of modern society. From the obsession with social media and technology through to the lack of privacy we afford ourselves, the speech is a reminder that there is a life beyond social media profiles and that human interaction cannot be replaced. We are drowning in a world where definitions are more frequently blurred – between our public and private lives, between expert information and opinion, between truth and propaganda. The pace and energy of Act I and Act II are so distinctly different it heightens further the plight of our anti-hero. Ultimately, Don Juan must face the consequences of his actions but will he repent and reform?

Q&A with Don Juan in Soho’s Adrian Scarborough

Olivier award-winning actor, Adrian Scarborough is back on stage for the first time since his role as the Fool in the National’s 2014 production of King Lear. He is appearing along-side David Tennant in Patrick Marber’s acclaimed Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre. Read on to find out what it’s like performing at the Wyndham’s and what David Tennant means by ‘squeaky bum time.’
HF: Don Juan is loosely based on a Moliere tragicomedy, another of which is currently on stage just down the road. What is it about Moliere’s work that is still relevant to today’s audiences?

AS: Moliere was wise enough to know that longevity in the theatre was best achieved by using universal themes for all his plays, and that satire and comedy make for a great night out.
HF: You are part of a strong company of accomplished actors. How has it been performing with everyone?

AS: My breath is continually taken away by the unbelievable talents of our company. They sing in four-part harmony, they dance like the funkiest of dudes, and they can really act. They also know how to laugh and twinkle and have fun in order to make every show a unique treat. They are the finest of players.
HF: Patrick Marber is directing this production and has adapted the text. Is working on a show different with the writer sat in the room?

AS: Having access to the writer in rehearsal is a glorious blessing, particularly when the play is as modern and topical as this is. Patrick is crafting lines from all the news headlines on a daily basis to keep us satirically relevant. It’s a thrilling rollercoaster, the audiences love it.
HF: You are known to many for some great comedy roles, on film, TV and in the theatre. How does it feel to take on another comic character?

AS: I haven’t been on stage for three years so it’s been a scary few weeks getting back into the swing of live performance. David Tennant calls it “Squeaky bum time”!  I love the character of Stan very dearly. He’s a true romantic who sees the best in everyone, an eternal optimist, who has become jaded by his association with Don Juan. As I near 50 I can empathise with a lot of that!
HF: How did you come to choose theatre as a profession?

AS: It sort of chose me. I was so terrible at everything else, that I only had one viable option! Mercifully it’s sort of worked out.
HF:  The Wyndham’s has a history of great theatre work. How does it feel to be treading the boards of this esteemed venue?

AS: I think the Wyndham’s is the theatre every actor wants to play. It’s right there in the heart of Theatreland with a history that beggars belief. Tallulah Bankhead, The Boyfriend, Joan Littlewood’s company, Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Side By Side By Sondheim, Albee’s Three Tall Women, Sunday In The Park With George. It’s awash with the finest theatre ghosts. It’s also architecturally astonishing. There’s barely a duff seat in the house, even from the back of the balcony you can see the full height of the proscenium arch. It’s a joy to play.

William Terriss: A 19th Century Murder In The West End

Dining on Maiden Lane, Just round the corner from Covent Garden and opposite the stage doors to the Vaudeville and Adelphi theatres, I am surrounded by a wealth of cultural heritage.

A contemporary of Henry Irving, actor William Terriss was a renowned and respected actor of the late 19th century, the plaque recalls that he was popular in the Adelphi farces. It appears that an out of work actor, by the name of Richard Archer Price, had a minor beef with Terriss due to the latter arranging for Price to be removed from a production. Price had struggled financially and had become more and more dependent on alcohol which affected his ability to work and lead to his dismissal. One evening in 1897, Price was waiting for Terriss to arrive at the theatre where he then proceeded to stab the unfortunate Terriss to death.

It is a story which fits well into its time, akin to that of the pennydreadfuls and the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes. I discovered this story through the plaque on the wall, simply by wandering around Theatreland looking at what’s about. I wonder what other stories there are to be discovered while having a spot of lunch.

Incidentally, if you happen to visit either the Adelphi Theatre to see the stage on which Terriss performed or you pass through Covent Garden tube station, be sure to look out for the late actor. In both of these locations, the ghost of William Terriss has been sighted.

Nearby is the former home of actor David Garrick, the house of nineteenth century artist Turner lies round the corner, St Paul’s, the actors church immortalised in the opening scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is a stone throw away but it’s a plaque on the wall of the Adelphi, now home to Kinky Boots, which has caught my attention. The small yet intriguing plaque marks the scene of a murder right outside the stage door.

A contemporary of Henry Irving, actor William Terriss was a renowned and respected actor of the late 19th century, the plaque recalls that he was popular in the Adelphi farces. It appears that an out of work actor, by the name of Richard Archer Price, had a minor beef with Terriss due to the latter arranging for Price to be removed from a production. Price had struggled financially and had become more and more dependent on alcohol which affected his ability to work and lead to his dismissal. One evening in 1897, Price was waiting for Terriss to arrive at the theatre where he then proceeded to stab the unfortunate Terriss to death.

It is a story which fits well into its time, akin to that of the pennydreadfuls and the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes. I discovered this story through the plaque on the wall, simply by wandering around Theatreland looking at what’s about. I wonder what other stories there are to be discovered while having a spot of lunch.

Incidentally, if you happen to visit either the Adelphi Theatre to see the stage on which Terriss performed or you pass through Covent Garden tube station, be sure to look out for the late actor. In both of these locations, the ghost of William Terriss has been sighted.

REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ” Staunton and Hill are perfection. . .”

Edward Albee’s Tony award-winning play has received a much talked about revival just months after his death in September 2016. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf famously missed out on the Pulitzer Prize for 1963 after the board objected to its sexual references and profanities; this lead to no prize being awarded that year.

This production is directed by James Macdonald and boasts a cast of Imelda Staunton, Conleth Hill, Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots, with an impressive five Oliviers between them. Such a pedigree of talent ensures that the production is in safe hands and is a fitting tribute to the late Albee, showing his mastery of his craft.

The play centres around a married couple, George and Martha, caught up in a war of attrition. The conflict has been raging for over 20 years and their relationship is steeped in bitterness, regret but also symbiosis. The play takes place in the early hours of the morning after a party on a University campus where George works and Martha is the daughter of the President of the college.

Into the mix of this hard-drinking couple comes an unsuspecting younger couple, Nick and Honey, at the start of their lives and careers. They have agreed to join George and Martha for a drink and soon get caught in the crossfire. Perhaps George and Martha can see themselves in the optimistic youths: the aspirations they never fulfilled, the potential never quite realised.  This pushes the argument further and the tragedies of their lives are soon put on display.

The play is intense to watch, taking the audience along on a journey filled with fun and laughter but also anger, violence, and hatred. The dynamics of the play are such that the audience seldom has the opportunity to sit back and relax but are constantly having their emotions tossed around, drawing them into the living room where the battle plays on.

Staunton and Hill are perfection in their roles. Well balanced and complimentary to each other’s performances, they provide a foil for the other to work off which they do so brilliantly. The relationship between the two has ensured that this production feels fresh, their verbal sparring sparking with electricity.

It has just been announced that the production will be broadcast to cinemas in May, giving a wider audience the opportunity to see this landmark production. If you are unable to get a ticket for the London run, go and see this modern classic in your local cinema and enjoy the performances of two of our finest actors. 

Rent – 20th Anniversary Production

This new production has been mounted to mark the 20th anniversary of Rent’s arrival on the musical theatre scene in New York. Since then, it has taken the world by storm, with successful productions all over the globe.

Set in the 90s, it follows a group of ‘creatives’ with high ideals and low income. Desperately trying to find their way in the world fighting to keep the landlord at bay, they soon find that there is something else blocking the sun. AIDS is sweeping through their community with tragic consequences.

The show is filled with the angst of youth searching for their voice. We see the characters over the course of a year and see optimism turn to despair, flirtation turn to love, happiness turn to tragedy, and darkness turn to hope.

Directed by Bruce Guthrie, this production is faithful to the original Broadway staging. It is homage to what went before and instantly recognisable to fans of the DVD made on the last night of its New York run. The show has been given a little tinker and made to feel fresh once more, notably through the choreography of Lee Proud. The movement works well in the confines of a touring space and succeeds in giving the show energy.

The company works seamlessly together, doing justice to the music and lyrics crafted by Jonathon Larson over the period of six years. Incidentally, I believe his story, creating Rent and bringing it to a wider audience before his untimely death the night before the opening at the age of 35, would make an interesting musical – but that’s for another time.

Stand out performances came from Ross Hunter as Roger providing the personification of the tortured musician. His performance was, at times, subtle in conveying the horrors of his past and the limbo of his present. His touching love song to the dying Mimi was a highlight of the production. Also mention must go to Layton Williams as the effervescent Angel. A favourite character with audiences, Williams really worked the crowd with his opening number featuring an energetic routine, comprising of backflips, the splits and high kicks galore – and all in heels. But while Williams proved the showman as the drag queen with heart who is everyone’s friend, he also brought a tenderness to the character and his death, caused by AIDS, was a moment with excellent direction and handled superbly, striking the right note with the audience.

Rent has spent the last 20 years as a favourite musical of many with many of the shows numbers being recognisable to all. Its enduring appeal is linked to its theme of human survival against the odds. It’s the little man standing up to the corporation, the establishment and disease. While it is set in a time and place distant to many, its message lives on and I’m sure in 20 years, we will be marking it’s 40th anniversary.

Imelda Staunton is back on stage

Not once, but twice this year will theatregoers have the chance to witness one of the finest actors ever to tread the boards.

Imelda Staunton will be starring in the revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre. Later on, she will be at the National in a revival of Sondheim’s Follies.

 

On stage she is known for her performances in hit musicals, notably Into the Woods, Sweeney Toddand most recently Gypsy. So what will audiences expect when seeing her in a straight play. Will they be missing out on something?

Having seen her in a straight play, Hampstead Theatre’s Good People, back in 2014, it is safe to say that audiences will be more than satisfied. In both musicals and plays, Staunton acts with every fibre of her being, drawing on great energy and putting it into everything she does. She is a consummate actor, able to portray a vast spectrum of emotions and carry the audience along with her.  She is one of these actors that when you know they are in something, you know it is going to be good. In fact, in Staunton’s case, you know it is going to be brilliant.

Her last appearance on the London stage was as Mama Rose in the Chichester revival of Gypsy. The part called for a strong woman, able to hold her own and command the stage but at the same time add a layer of fragility and desperation to the character. Beg or borrow a copy of the soundtrack or the DVD of the production and see for yourself. It will give you a flavour of what to expect. A real tour de force.

Please, do not take my word for it. I implore you to go and see for yourself. You will not be disappointed.