Read my Theatre Preview roundup for London’s Barbican Life magazine (Spring 2019 issue)

If you are a resident of the Barbican Estate in London, you may already have seen my regular theatre preview articles in the excellent quarterly BARBICAN LIFE magazine, covering all the exciting and innovative theatre productions staged in the next couple of months at the world-renowned Barbican Centre.

If you haven’t, then please click on the link to go directly to the theatre preview article here. Enjoy!

Theatre FootNotes for March 2019 – a brief summary of other theatre events in my diary

TARTUFFE at the National Theatre.Yes, yes, we all know of it as a classic theatrical work. But how many of us have actually read or seen it? I have to say the main reason this edged up my list was that the director was Blanche McIntyre, a hugely talented director who I have followed since 2011, having worked her way up diligently and successfully through such memorable shows as the (five-starred by the New York Times) ACCOLADE in 2011, THE WINTER’S TALE at Shakespeare’s Globe, TITUS ANDRONICUS at the RSC, WELCOME HOME CAPTAIN FOX at the Donmar Warehouse, THE WRITER at the Almeida, and now she has arrived at the National. I was really looking forward to this.

Written by Moliere 350 years ago, TARTUFFE’s original target was religious piety. With the changing drives in the world the target today is usually the guilt of wealth and inequality, which is true of this new adaptation by John Donnelly.

The best of it is that the production is sumptuously designed, set on a fabulously gaudy perspective-defying room design by Robert Jones (which might best be described in style as National Trust meets Studio 54) , it gushes unfocussed excess, going as far as to have a 20-foot high gold statue of Michelangelo’s Adam in the corner on a black circular (revolving!) plinth – making it look delightfully like a really buff Academy Award on steroids.

McIntyre does what she can with the script, but it’s impossible to care for or about any of these self-serving characters, which does of course mean that it’s a spot-on critique of our current society. The cast work hard and the supporting cast are particularly effective in delivering what laughs there are. I’m disappointed to say that Dennis O Hare’s highly resistable Tartuffe left me cold. His accent is an ever-shifting global melange of stereotypes which while obviously sincerely meant to be amusing (and plainly entailed much hard work in “vocal choreography”), all this hard work was scuppered by a lack of projection (together with a low sound balance) which rendered half of his dialogue completely unintelligible even from K row in the stalls (NB I have near perfect hearing). By sheer coincidence this was a Captioned Performance, and I was very grateful for the caption boards to figure what he was attempting to say. I am sorry to say that this effectively pulled the plug on my engagement in the show, and I was glad to get to the end after a long two and three quarter hours.

Seminar/ Discussion of the work of group GAY SWEATSHOP – at Studio Voltaire’s Oscar Wilde Temple in Clapham. Conceived and led by artist Conal McStravick, this event considered the work and legacies of pioneering group The Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, and in particular, their seminal 1976 play As Time Goes By. Utilising well-chosen readings from two of the original group members (Bruce Bayley and Philip Osment), and some early video footage. An Illuminating and timely reminder of those pioneers who opened the door for many other actors, groups and dramatists who followed.

CIRCA by Tom Ratcliffe – at the Old Red Lion. A loosely connected collection of dialogues which aims to explore the gay identity over the last few decades. Despite the best efforts of a hard-working cast, what little message did get through was unfocussed and ultimately rather soulless and pessimistic. I am sure an earnest intention, however it failed to translate after two long hours.

Weekly Repertory Theatre in the 1950s; watch an entertaining first-hand account from Martin Daniels

Through the 1950s, in hundreds of theatres up and down the British Isles, weekly repertory theatre brought a steady diet of plays to local communities who cherished their smallish local theatres. Groups of actors were hired to perform a complete season of plays, one being performed on stage whilst the following week’s play was being learned and blocked. And so it went on, week after week, year after year. Dying out at the end of the decade, “weekly rep” (as it was known) was fondly remembered by those who had seen it.

As a young actor, Martin Daniels experienced first-hand the demanding and unpredictable world of British weekly rep during the 1950s. In this engaging and informative interview from 2016 with Ardent Theatre’s Mark Sands, he tells us about how weekly rep worked, the various circuits, and why rep faded into history, along the way sharing some fascinating and funny anecdotes. The interview is helpfully divided into sections so that you can dive straight to the part that most interests you, or you can get comfy and watch the whole thing from start to finish, a pretty interesting way to spend an hour!

You can watch the interview here

Martin Daniels. Photo courtesy Mark Sands

Mouse eats Fox

20th Century Fox logo 1953. copyright. courtesy Logopof at Flickr

So Disney’s takeover of 21st Century-Fox is sealed at a cost of $71 billion. What, I wonder, will this mean theatrically? Disney’s own theatrical arm, Disney Theatrical Group, are producers of highly-successful screen to stage adaptations of Disney properties such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, Aladdin and others. In terms of film studios adapting their own works, Disney is by far the most successful, focussing as they have on musicals, mostly animated, which is of course the area in which Disney has been an industry leader since the 1930s.

Perhaps with this major acquisition we shall see more stage musical versions of Fox film properties. They certainly have the material. Don’t forget, 20th Century-Fox was one of the foremost exponents of the vibrant Technicolor Musical in the early 1940s, easily rivalling fellow majors Paramount and even MGM in terms of budget, spectacle and quality. Legendary “42nd Street” director/drillmeister Busby Berkeley, in “The Gangs All Here” (see the Blu Ray for the most sumptuous colour you have ever bathed in), giving us a memorable (and a little bit trippy) routine with neon hula hoops in the dark, as well as the unique Carmen Miranda jauntily sporting a hat the size of the Empire State building made entirely of fruit; now there’s a challenge for any stage designer!

Many other hit movies (including all of the Marilyn Monroe vehicles) seem to be sitting there just waiting to be developed. Of course, many of them originated as stage works, others as book or short stories. Fox’s art house label, Fox Searchlight, similarly has a string of intriguing titles which have the potential to hit the stage profitably.

Fox was late to the Broadway party. After years of simply licensing out properties, in 2013 they took a more active role, collaborating with major Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (producer of Motown, Rent, In The Heights, amongst others) on bringing their film works to the stage. Fox Stage Productions have developed stage versions (in various degrees of production) including The Devil Wears Prada, Mrs Doubtfire and Father of the Bride, as well as the stage version of All About Eve, currently playing in London starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James (co-produced by Sonia Friedman).

Stage is much cheaper to produce than film, with greater potential returns and longevity for a big hit. In London, for example, The Lion King has achieved substantially advanced prices in a 2000-seater house, consistently, for twenty years (this October). The comparative price of a theatre ticket versus a movie ticket (in the UK, at least 5 to 1 in favour of theatre) also plays its part in the financials.

What would I like to see? Well how about a musical version of How To Marry A Millionaire, starring Summer Strallen, Louise Dearman and Sheila Atim, and the boys Tyrone Huntley, Gabriel Vick, Michael Xavier and (a dream) Robert Morse as J D Hanley.

Perhaps you have your own ideas of what shows from Fox you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments below…

It will naturally take time for the identification, development and the hard work of turning possibilities into actual slated projects, but I feel certain that Disney’s global success and ambition will help many historic Fox properties to realise their future stage potential and reach wider audiences.

Review: The Phlebotomist

The Phlebotomist at Hampstead Theatre until 20 April. More information here

IN BRIEF Slow-burning drama ignites into a complex battle between cold science and humanity, driven by a magnetic central performance and a strong script

“Wherever there’s a system, people will find a way to cheat it”. So says one of the characters in THE PHLEBOTOMIST, returning to Hampstead theatre after a sellout run last year, now expanded and fully-produced, shortlisted for an Olivier Award and also for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award. Not bad for writer Ella Road’s debut play.

Bea is a phlebotomist (or blood taker), in a future just a few years away where people’s life chances are ruled by their (1 to 10) genetic rating from one single blood test.

Bea’s quirky, a little insecure and a 7.1. She meets and falls for Aaron, who is charming, literary, and a desirable 8.9. They slowly fall for each other. When Bea’s friend Char’s rating test reveals she is developing Huntingdon’s disease, which will ruin her rating, she implores Bea to replace her blood for a better rated sample so that she can continue with her top job.

So begins Bea’s entanglement in the dark world of blood swapping, rapidly becoming used to the extra money. She buys new stuff, gets a bigger flat with Aaron, all is going well. Until the secrets and lies this relationship are built on come to light. Inequalities test them and things start to unravel, spiralling to a devastating conclusion. The near-silent, still coda is both potent and moving.

Personally, I always feel that work based “in the future” creates a sense of distance or “unreality” which is hard to overcome, especially on stage, but here the feelings and emotions are palpable, drawing you in slowly and quietly through act one and then haemorrhaging out in act two. Writer Road’s background as an actor has helped her to produce well-crafted dialogue that works, which the actors use to its fullest. Hooking us with that universal concern about our health, she gets under our skin in a most effective way, as evidenced by the intense concentration of the audience around me. To feel an audience “lean in” to a show is special; but this audience did.

The ingenious modular set design also serves as screens; as they are gradually removed in a metaphor for breakdown, underlining the unease generated. Video projected onto the screens is used to cover scene changes and the scenes, although variable, are mostly effective. Overall the balance of visual elements and dialogue is very successful.

Jade Anouka as Bea is magnetic, giving a vital, detailed and heartfelt portrayal. She makes Bea easy to care about. She and Rory Fleck Byrne (as quiet but simmering Aaron, a good performance but just occasionally lacking vocal projection) are well-matched, both returning from last year’s run. Direction is tight and economical, suited to the material. The show has also expanded well from the small downstairs studio and now feels as if it has fully reached its stage potential. (And, as I suggested previously, it has been optioned for TV.)

Pointing up a whole raft of ideas, from ethics, to responsibility to oneself and the unborn child, self-esteem, of truth and lies, and their ultimate consequences, THE PHLEBOTOMIST is a passionately-written, compelling and unsettling view of an uncertain future world. Book quickly before it sells out. Again.

The Phlebotomist runs at Hampstead Theatre until 20 April. Tickets and more information here