Remembering Mark Bramble

Portrait of Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart co-writers of the book for musical 42nd Street
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “(L-R) Bookwriters Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble during a rehearsal for the Broadway musical “42nd Street.” (New York)” . Copyright The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Mark Bramble, who has died on 20 February aged 68 after complications with cardiovascular hypertension , was best known for his work as a writer, collaborating on or originating the books for shows including the huge hits 42nd STREET and BARNUM.

You can find plenty of CV- obituaries of the man, but I wanted to mention a couple of things about my experience of the man and his work. One might say that 42nd STREET was his most successful and most- revived project. The last major success of legendary producer David Merrick, 42nd STREET opened in New York 1980 and ran for 9 years, and in London it opened in 1984 and ran for 5 years. In both countries it went out on national tours for three more years. Bramble co-wrote the book with Michael Stewart and, I believe, with contributions from Bradford Ropes (the original story writer from the very early 30s).

Production photography courtesy of Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Later, Bramble stepped up to revise and then direct the Broadway revival, winning the Drama Desk and the Tony Awards for Best Musical Revival in 2001. He directed many subsequent worldwide revivals of 42nd STREET, the last closing in London in January 2019 after a run of almost two years. The London run, retooled and fine-tuned, was the best and most coherent, with a big budget to do the show full justice as previous smaller-scale revivals just hadn’t had the power to do. Can you imagine a cast of 56 with over 650 costumes and an orchestra of 19? No wonder London audiences gasped at its bravura staging. I doubt that we shall ever see its like again.

Thankfully, the last of his projects, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane revival in London, has been committed to film so that future audiences can still enjoy the final fabulous flourish of the “money is no object” musical.

I was lucky enough to work with 42nd STREET in London in the 80s, and although I occasionally saw Mark Bramble flitting around the theatre, never really had time to get to know him. However, my sharpest memory is of the 1984 Olivier Awards in London, staged at Drury Lane (then the new home of 42nd STREET), when the Best Musical was announced as….of course, 42nd STREET! Bramble scrambled up and literally shoved into the limelight the show’s original producer, the legendary David Merrick, who appeared less than happy at being brought into public view. But Bramble’s excitement was authentic, uncensored and rather touching, an ample demonstration of a man’s love for his work.

For all this, thank you Mark Bramble. We shall remember you.

Production photography courtesy of Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Listen to Mark Bramble talk about the birth of 42nd STREET in this TheatreVoice audio interview with Dominic Cavendish from 2017 here

People: Ncuti Gatwa

Now, please don’t chastise me. I don’t have Netflix. Yet. (I know, I know, its on my “to do” list but most evenings are spent at the theatre!)

Having picked up a recent copy of London’s Time Out magazine, I was happily surprised to see an interview with an actor called Ncuti Gatwa. I was delighted to see he is storming the small screen with his show Sex Education. And I was reminded of the first (and last) time that I had seen him.

Back in late 2017 Alice Childress’s absorbing, significant play TROUBLE IN MIND played a month at the Print Room in London after a successful season in Bath. The cast, headed by (the always five-star) Tanya Moodie, was unusually excellent across the board. However, for me, the big surprise of the evening was the actor portraying the young actor arriving for his first job, all wide-eyed and filled with hope. He absolutely stole that audience’s hearts and minds. His name was Ncuti Gatwa. And I still remember his radiant performance to this day.

So, Ncuti, I don’t know you personally, but I do sincerely wish you an amazing career ahead. And I think Netflix owes you some commission, because I just signed up – to see you!

Read the Time Out interview with Ncuti Gatwa here

Review: The Animals and Children Took To The Streets!

IN BRIEF 1927’s unique fusion of stagecraft, film and graphic animation produces a gleefully twisted storytelling which is a delight to the eye

Having seen 1927’s five-starred (by me) massive hit GOLEM at the Young Vic in 2016 (televised in the UK on BBC4 in November 2018), I leapt at the chance to see this, one of their earlier shows now embarking upon a global tour (after a four-year global tour of GOLEM).

I suppose it was natural to find that THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS! did not quite live up to GOLEM’s virtuosity, but this is more down to the storyline than anything else.  However, this is still an enchanting piece of theatre by a unique company whose work has been described as a graphic novel shocked into life.

On the outskirts of a prosperous city sits a squalid run-down apartment block, watched over by a depressive caretaker. The city is plagued by uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) children running amok, causing mayhem, disruption and anxiety. Determined to help, mild and well-meaning Agnes Eaves and her little daughter Evie move in to offer the kiddies some art classes, all pasta shapes and PVA glue, and pretty much as we feared, their efforts are soundly trashed by the little monsters. Finally, the Mayor acts with a heavy hand. Unfortunately, little Evie is caught up in the sweep and disappears. Will anyone save Evie and reunite her with Agnes?

The fact that show consists of three actors interacting with three flat panels onto which are projected various images seems at first very limiting, but this company’s imagination and technical skill still retains the power to make you smile in wonder. It is always great to hear an audience give a little gasp of surprise as the images reveal themselves, and there are one or two moments in this show where you can experience that sensation. The fusion of live action, graphic animation, filmic imagery (and downright weirdness) is underscored by a plinky-plonky piano accompaniment which is at once quaint and quite pleasantly unhinged. Moments of great humour are infused with the company’s trademark edginess. Crucially, the split-second interaction of the performers with their projected surroundings is impressive.

The idea that children can become a societal problem is an interesting one, however not as effective (to me) as the theme of GOLEM (modern technology taking over our lives and minds), but still worthwhile. As a critique that superficial methods are not enough to stem the deep dysfunctionalities within societies, it has a bite, but it is somewhat submerged in the general storytelling. The show, at 70 minutes, is just the right length before the onset of projection fatigue. You will feel that it is long enough, but a very diverting and entertaining 70 minutes it is. See it if you can.

P.S. Will you get a “Granny’s Gumdrop” from the leopard-skinned attendants?

THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS! runs at the Lyric Hammersmith, London until March 16th and then tours internationally. Lyric tickets here

Views: A Star is…..Off by Marilyn Cutts

Marilyn Cutts

As well as being a space for my own thoughts, the Views section of the blog will sometimes give specially invited Guest contributors a chance to speak their mind on interesting theatre topics.

Our first Guest writer is actor/director Marilyn Cutts who has a wealth of experience across the industry, from Fascinating Aida’s first lineup to an extensive theatrical career encompassing musicals, drama and opera. Marilyn is passionate about actors’ rights, music, literature, art and theatre buildings. Marilyn writes below about how producers handle a star’s absence.

A Star is…..Off

When Louise Redknapp sustained injuries during rehearsals for the musical “9 to 5” (now playing in London), the producers took the unusual step of offering to exchange tickets for a future performance at which the Eternal star would be appearing. For those patrons who had booked specifically to see Ms. Redknapp this was undoubtedly a generous gesture, but it does raise an interesting point.

It used to be the case that in amongst the small print on the back of one’s theatre ticket there was a disclaimer that “the management reserves the right to make any alterations to the advertised arrangements, programme or cast without being obliged to offer a refund or exchange”. (I copied this verbatim from the back of a ticket to an event at Sadlers Wells dated February 2018). That was the deal, and it applied from top to bottom. Griffith James, a much-missed Company Manager once told me that in the early 1970s, when putting a sign outside the Haymarket Theatre Royal stating that “Miss Ingrid Bergman will not be appearing today”, a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. Now, while I do not wish a haematoma of the tibia on anyone, he was simply doing his job, and the angry fan was out of order on every count.

What has changed so that producers now feel they must make reparation for what could very reasonably be considered a “circumstance beyond their control”? Is it the perceived status of celebrities and stars? The attitude of the audience? Where does this leave fellow theatre producers? And what about understudies?

“…a disappointed fan kicked him in the shins. Repeatedly. “

I believe the answer is a subtle mix of some of the above. Big popular musicals, especially those based on films or jukebox musicals with their roots in pop, often attract an audience more used to seeking their entertainment in cinemas and concert venues. A celluloid star will always be available on request, and if a band cannot appear for whatever reason, the gig is cancelled, usually with the promise of a refund. So perhaps some fans expect the protocol of cinemas and concert venues to apply in a theatre setting too. Then again, where individuals have been voted to a high-profile position by a TV or online audience, the audience have physically assisted in that rise, and that changes the relationship. Instead of just appreciating a performer, the audience are now stakeholders in their celebrity, and they may well feel that their investment gives them certain rights. It could be that producers are already responding to this perceived sea change in the performer/audience relationship before it has been openly articulated.

All musical fans know that being an understudy can be a fast-track to stardom, just look at the role of Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. Or consider the real-life situation last year when Steph Parry rushed from Mamma Mia! just one block away to help out covering the star’s sudden indisposition in the second act at 42nd Street’s revival at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to huge popular acclaim (and a contract to play the lead later on during the revival’s near two-year run). While we can all name our favourite icons in the ‘There’ll never be another……… (fill in as required)’ debate, when it comes to a show, no one is irreplaceable. Another current West End favourite, All About Eve, can tell us all about that!

Being a producer is one of the easiest ways to lose money there is. To survive, producers must sell tickets, consequently they engage artists with a substantial public profile, and presumably an eager following. But what is the criteria whereby one artist can be replaced by an understudy without comment, yet the same producers will offer a ticket exchange if another cast member is off? Surely by discriminating between performers producers are making a rod for their own backs? While offering to exchange tickets may appear generous in the short term, are the public missing out on the chance to see fresh talent given a chance? Think what it did for  Peggy Sawyer. She might have gone out there a nobody, but she came back a star!

Text and photograph Copyright 2019 Marilyn Cutts

Catching up with…..writer Rose Lewenstein

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2), an award-nominated intense two- hander about sex, climate change and consumption

Thanks for chatting with us, Rose. COUGAR is a really compelling piece of theatre. Where did the germ of the idea for the show come from?

It’s hard to pinpoint because the play didn’t start with a clear idea of what it was. It grew from thoughts and conversations around the way we consume stuff and each other. I actually started working on it about six years ago and I must have had a lot more time back then to just write and write until something revealed itself. And from that I became interested in the impossibility of this very intense relationship that seems completely cut off from the outside world.

When we chatted after the show, you said that you were still thinking about whether the play is intimate or epic. Have you had any more thoughts since then? (I, personally, think it succeeds as being both.)

I still don’t know. I guess the obvious answer is intimate, because it’s a two-hander set in one room (or many versions of one room) that focuses on a relationship. Nothing about that sounds epic. But to me it is, because it’s really about how we’re heading towards disaster and the question is what do people do in the face of disaster? 

One of the things that audiences love most about the Orange Tree is the intimacy of this in the round, 180-seater. You mentioned that each time you saw the play you have sat in a different part of the auditorium. What has that shown you?

That is one of my favourite things about the Orange Tree. You have a completely different perspective every time you see a play there. And the way Chelsea (the director) and Rosanna (the designer) have utilised the space with COUGAR is really amazing because you’re never missing out. When I was rewriting last year I had that space in mind and I think knowing it would be in the round really informed the writing of it. I was almost picturing a gladiator area or something like that, where we’re looking down on these characters who are tearing each other to pieces.

Have you had any unexpected reactions to the work?

My friend said that watching it was like being put in a washing machine…

The show is incredibly demanding in terms of movement and timing as well as technically. What impact, if any, did that have on the casting process?

It just meant we needed shit-hot actors. They literally don’t get a break. When I was writing it I was obviously more concerned with the rhythm and the arc and what it meant and I wasn’t ever thinking, Oh this will be really hard for the actors! Charlotte and Mike are brilliant, both technically and in the ways they inhabit the roles, but they also have this amazing chemistry and that’s something quite difficult to plan for during casting.

We are seeing a lot more plays run straight through without intervals. Why did you decide that was the best structure for COUGAR?

It’s a very intense play. I mean, two characters, eighty scenes! So one reason is that I can’t really see it being long enough for an interval because I’m not sure how much more of that an audience could take. And having watched it again and again now, in the hands of two incredible actors, it’s become clear that play is performed in one breath. And that sensory through-line feels important when its structure and form is quite disjointed.

The show is being co-produced with the renowned English Touring Theatre. Does this mean that we can expect a tour of the show soon?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask ETT!

If our readers are thinking about seeing the show, what would you say to entice them along?

Erm… sex and climate change? But I also think Chelsea and the team have created a visually stunning piece of art. It’s visceral. You won’t be bored. And it’s quite short, so plenty of time for the pub afterwards.

Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like them to feel full

Thanks Rose! 

Readers will also be interested to know that COUGAR’s director Chelsea Walker has been OFFIE-nominated (Off West End Theatre Awards)

Rose Lewenstein is the writer of COUGAR (playing at the Orange Tree, Richmond, until March 2)