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

DEATH OF A SALESMAN at The Young Vic

This was always going to be a big event, so my opinions are small beer to the attendant PR tsunami. I saw this show at the first preview, another reason not to formally criticise or rate before Press Night. However, just briefly, this was already in tip-top shape from the start. Elliott and Cromwell’s idea of making the Lomans African American (which has been done before) was interesting but perhaps not quite as ground-breaking as some might have expected. Having said that, the entire cast give studied, committed performances, the standout for me being Sharon D Clarke as Linda Loman, her grinding quiet hopefulness weighted by years of neglect and disappointment, given outlet through her religious/spiritual singing. The use of music was interesting but not again quite as revelatory as one might have been built up to expect from this director team. Running time was spot on first time, with the high standard of professionalism one has come to expect from this team. Impossible to give it less than four stars.


THE FIRM at Hampstead Downstairs

Roy Williams’ play has much to say that is significant and timely. A gang of villains – the Firm of the title – meet up again over a decade after their last job, and time has changed them all significantly. “We’re not the Firm anymore…more like the Infirm” quips one character bitterly in probably the best joke in the show. The various arguments and revelations as they wait for a fifth member who never appears, highlights the long-term damage done by absent fathers, broken families and the threat of gang culture which seems so smoothly to be replacing the family unit. All this is terribly important in our country today, and the themes that Williams explores are vital and engaging and he is no doubt sincere. However, the swaggering, homophobic, loud and violent men-children characters who populate this play make it hard, if not impossible, to care about these people. For me, frustrating. The play, which ran 90 minutes straight through, had a stylish “bar” set from designer Alex Marker.


DON’T LOOK AWAY at The Pleasance Downstairs

An obviously well-meaning and earnest play about an asylum seeker gets sidelined and ultimately, sunk, by too much plot, including domestic drama and unnecessary distractions in this 90 minute play from NOVAE Theatre, a new sister company to the brilliant Idle Motion. The gritty reality of the subject isn’t really aided by some inter-scene expressive movement work which tries to explore the tension between the characters but feels a bit out of place. The piece didn’t add up and left this viewer somewhat confused and dissatisfied with a very double-edged ending, although there was some good acting by Julia Barrie as the cleaning lady.

Venue Note This venue is not audience- (or actor-) friendly. Five minutes of the play were drowned out by a motorbike revving-competition immediately outside the un-soundproofed doors of the studio, the rest of the running time underscored by singing and shouting from the drinkers in the bar next door, which made it impossible to concentrate on the play. Top marks here to the actors for not being fazed by this unacceptable distraction, which was hugely disrespectful to the performers. If you ever see a show advertised in the Pleasance Downstairs Studio, please think twice before booking!

Review: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

IN BRIEF Fitzgerald’s regression story given sincere and intriguing folk interpretation by musically talented cast, but runs too long.

The story of the man who is born old and lives backwards, dying a baby has been told several times before, by different authors, but Fitzgerald’s has seen the most light of day. Taking the barest skeleton of the story, this production uproots the tale from its Baltimore setting and reimagines it as a kind of West Country folk tale, with Celtic-inspired music, which works pretty well albeit rather over- “atmosphere”-d for my taste (the dry ice sticks in your throat for hours!).

We enter to fog on an atmospherically lit harbourside. A decked platform serves as the performance space, with a piano and drum kit at the rear. The cast of five performers are all good singers as well as skilled musicians whose talents suit the string-emphasised score by Darren Clark.

The music has variety of tone – by turns rousing, lilting and passionate – generally very pleasing to the ear, but for me the numbers all started to blend into each other, and for me there were no themes I took away once out of the auditorium. I remembered to write down a note about the lovely song Time, which like others in the score, is punctuated and fractured by dialogue which was disappointing as it reduced the enjoyment of the undoubted skill of the songwriter.

Schonlatern’s deceptively simple staging (and lighting design) is thoughtful and inventive, the traps in the stage also used to clever ends. Puppetry was simple but reasonably effective, but I liked the idea of the puppets being made from discarded items which could have washed up on the coastline.

The first act is slowly paced, and goes on for at least 15 minutes too long; the second half, being shorter, is more effective in every way, with the death of the wife being undoubtedly a very moving piece of theatre, although the actual end of the show rather petered out for me.

The book is generally leisurely-paced, however the way that the narrative keeps hammering home tiny facts and micro-details about time and events for me eventually became annoying and ended up turning me off. To compare to another recent show, AMELIE used this narrative device also, but they just spotted it through the show, whereas this piece over-labours the points and becomes over-stylised.

It’s All Just A Matter of Time, as the cast (seemingly endlessly) hammer home to us. For me, the time went a little too slowly, but I was glad to have seem this imaginative reworking of a story made better by its new soil, given life by a dedicated cast, and an interesting and attractive score in a production invested with a lot of thought and care.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON runs at Southwark Playhouse’s Little Space until June 8th. Information and tickets here


Review: AMḖLIE

AMELIE The Musical is touring the UK until October, details here

IN BRIEF Charming, successful stage musical reinvention of unique movie lovingly reboots audiences’ Joie de Vivre

Celebrating a hopeful yet sensitive female hero, who makes a positive difference to the world she inhabits, AMḖLIE has arrived right on time…. As you may know, AMḖLIE was first a quirky, beloved and wildly successful French film from 2001. Turning a French movie into a stage musical is trickier than defusing a bomb whilst wearing oven gloves, so all credit must go to the creative team that have brought this reworked UK tour of AMḖLIE so brilliantly to the stage.

The story: Isolated as a child by overprotective parents, Amélie creates her own fantasy world where facts are her colour and thoughts her friends. Moving to Paris in 1997, she works as a waitress, observing others and performing small acts of kindness which deliver emotional rewards. Amélie is benevolent but distanced. It is only when she sees a man, Nino, collecting discarded photo booth snaps that she feels the first pangs of love. Both Amélie and Nino have a deep interest in others whilst maintaining a distance – Nino through his second hand photos, Amélie through her telescope and anonymous acts of kindness. But Amélie comes to realise that while helping others is easy, the hardest thing is to help herself.

The key to this show is that it never loses sight of its humanity. This production never misses its footing, even in the pretty outrageous first act closer, Elton John’s (Caolan McCarthy) – funeral tribute “Goodbye Amélie” as our heroine watches Princess Diana’s funeral and imagines it her own. Along the way, tiny cast interactions remind us that a simple “Thank You”, when an ensemble member helps Améllie on to one of the higher platforms, has resonance in a quiet, non- showy or self-important way, epitomising the show’s approach.

Audrey Brisson and Danny Mac in AMELIE The Musical. Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

Both leads are perfectly cast, each with an expressive vocal elegance which is highly pleasurable. Audrey Brisson as Amélie works hard; she is rarely off-stage but is full of energy, furnishing her character with tiny bits of business, and a precision that brings this enigmatic character to life, with a powerful voice and clarity. Danny Mac as Nino is strong-voiced, passionate yet tender, his role increasing as the show develops; his big number “Thin Air” is sung with heart and style. I would have liked more from his character- but this is Amélie’s show.

With the iconic Paris Metro sign surmounting the double height Art Nouveau/Deco -inspired set, Madeleine Girling provides an interestingly detailed design, with Amélie’s “nest” far above the Paris bustle, accessed by flying.

The supporting company of performer/musicians work hard and effectively to create a busy stage environment, with much movement direction and use of props, detailed and always interesting. Singing, too, was of a very high standard, with the spotted harmony work a delight to the ear.

Just as this was a film unlike any other, so too the musical has cannily embraced this to make the stage show unique in its approach and style – to make it less of a plot and more of a mosaic of tiny scenes and actions which weave together to make an intriguing storyline flow.

The music and lyrics are similarly complex and delightful. There is an earthiness in the arrangements (brass-light but strongly percussive) that grounds the numbers and lends them believability. A recorded track brings an extra texture to the music which sweeps and washes around the action in a genuinely engaging manner.

Musically, what marks out this show as different is that it is without any major anthems or show-stoppers, creating a kind of a musical modesty suited to the story and the characters, and while that it is appropriate, the downside is that it leaves audiences lacking any takeaway songs. Ditto there was little of what one could call choreography, no dance routines as such, much more in the realm of movement direction, again complex and effective, always interesting to look at but not often what one could call dance. Lighting is also atmospheric and suitably cinematic at times. Sound balance is generally excellent, although on occasion I struggled to hear Amélie’s words over the ensemble, which was a pity as they were worth hearing.

As a modern day fairytale, this could so easily have gone wrong, fallen flat or become infected with Disneyfication, but the humanity, élan, crazy humour and occasional morbidity lend it that quintessential Frenchness which is so often attempted but so rarely achieved.

Puppetry is also well used, spotted effectively with the puppet young Amélie being particularly engaging and skilfully brought to life. On the odd occasion when the pace threatens to lag, along comes a bit of craziness – a singing goldfish, a globe-trotting gnome, animated figs(!) to lift the show and throw us off-balance in the most delightful way.

AMELIE The Musical. Photo by Pamela Raith Photography

There is so much to enjoy in this complex, bustling show that is full of life and joie de vivre, pulled together expertly by director Michael Fentiman who creates a veritable curiosity shop of a show that endlessly fascinates, thanks to a hard working cast of sixteen.

The long-awaited finale when our two lovers come face to face is teased to its absolute limit as they eventually kiss, very slowly and delicately – a gamble with an audience, doing so little for such a long moment, but here the tension was such and the concentration so intense in the theatre, that the consummation was enhanced by the dreamlike slowness of the encounter. The audience were totally rapt.

Leaving on a forward-looking ending, AMḖLIE takes audiences out of the theatre knowing that they have spent two and a half hours in a nicer and more hopeful world. I loved it – and, if you have a pulse, so will you.


AMḖLIE tours the UK until October. For tour information and tickets, use the link here


What’s in a name?

The majority of London theatres retain their original names, which has cemented their place in becoming popular landmarks across the decades. Occasionally, theatres will acquire new names, often prompted by new ownership. Here are some of London’s West End theatres which have lived under different names over the years since they were built, together with some of their highlights.


Noël Coward Theatre. Photo courtesy of Delfont Mackintosh website

Noël Coward (2006) / Albery (1973) / New (1903) The Noël Coward Theatre opened in 1903 as the New Theatre, seating 872, designed by leading theatre architect W G R Sprague for a group headed by Sir Charles Wyndham (Wyndham’s Theatre sits back to back with this theatre) and Mary Moore. In 1920, Noël Coward made his West End debut here, acting in his own play I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU, his first in the West End. Lionel Bart’s OLIVER! ran here for seven years from 1960, achieving 2,618 performances. The theatre was renamed Albery in 1973 to recognise Sir Bronson Albery (Mary Moore’s son) who had managed the theatre for decades. In 2005 the theatre came under the ownership of Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, which refurbished the theatre and in 2006 renamed it the Noël Coward.


Gielgud Theatre.

Gielgud (1994) / Globe (1909) / Hicks (1906) The noted actor Seymour Hicks (later Sir) was a partner in this theatre’s construction, again designed by architect W G R Sprague, and the building was named after him in due deference when it opened in December 1906. However, he pulled out of involvement with the theatre in 1909 and it was then renamed the Globe Theatre, under the management of American impresario Charles Froman. The Globe name had become available after the previous Globe , on Newcastle Street, near the Aldwych, was demolished in 1902. In 1928 John Gielgud made the first of 15 appearances at this theatre with a short-lived comedy called HOLDING OUT THE APPLE. From 1937 until 1991 notable theatre company H. M Tennent based their operations in offices on the top floor at this theatre. The longest-running show to date at this theatre was the saucy romp THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP which ran for over three years from 1966 before transferring to the Comedy where it ran for another three years. (You can see the front of house display at the time in my post about the West End in 1969, link here). David Gilmore’s DAISY PULLS IT OFF was another long run here – lasting three years from 1983. The renaming of the theatre in 1994 honoured Sir John Gielgud’s association with the theatre whilst also having the benefit of differentiating it from the newly-opened Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank. Seating just under 1,000, in 2006 the theatre was acquired by Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, and refurbished to their usual very high standard in 2008.


Novello Theatre.

Novello (2005) / Strand (1913) /Whitney (1911) / Strand (1909) / Waldorf Theatre (1905) The Novello started life in 1905 as the Waldorf Theatre, one of a pair at each end of the block occupied by the Waldorf Hotel (Now the Waldorf Hilton), the other being the Aldwych Theatre, both designed by prolific W G R Sprague. Seating 1100, it was operated by the American Shubert Organisation and renamed Strand in 1909. In 1911 its name became the Whitney Theatre, before reverting to Strand in 1913. From 1971 the legendary NO SEX PLEASE – WE’RE BRITISH! ran for ten years and 6,671 performances before transferring to the Garrick (and then Duchess) to eventually complete a record-breaking 18-year run. BUDDY ran for seven years here from 1995 (after transferring from the Victoria Palace where it had run since 1989). In its centenary year it was beautifully refurbished by new owners Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, reopening in December 2005, renamed in honour of Ivor Novello, the star, composer and playwright, who lived in apartments above the theatre from 1913 to 1951. The theatre is currently home to MAMMA MIA! which has already notched up seven years here and seems likely to stay for quite some time.


Harold Pinter Theatre.

Harold Pinter (2011) / Comedy (1881) The Comedy Theatre opened in 1881 as the Royal Comedy Theatre, to designs by Thomas Verity, but by 1884 it was usually known just as The Comedy, as there was no formal permission to use the term “Royal”. The first lessee intended the place to be the home of comic opera, although this didn’t last more than a few years, and the theatre became known as a playhouse with occasional excursions into avant-garde plays and later, revues. In the 1950s the theatre was notable for innovation thanks to producer (and I am proud to say, my colleague) Anthony Field, who also managed the venue on behalf of its owner Harold Wingate. As well as creating additional revenue by building offices and ancillary spaces on top of the theatre, he crucially used the theatre to play a central role in overturning stage censorship by establishing the theatre as the New Watergate Club in 1956; This was because the Theatres Act 1843 was still in force, which required scripts to be submitted for permission by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to be publicly performed. By running the theatre as a club and creating a “membership”, his move allowed plays that had been banned due to language or subject matter to be performed under “club” conditions. Plays produced in this way included the UK premières of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, Robert Anderson’s TEA AND SYMPATHY and Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. The law was not revoked until 1968, but in the late 1950s there was a substantial loosening of conditions in theatre censorship, allowing the club to be dissolved and Peter Shaffer’s FIVE FINGER EXERCISE premièred to a public audience. In 2011, the current owners renamed the theatre the Harold Pinter Theatre in recognition of the playwright’s contribution to British drama. Long runs include the musical SUNNY AFTERNOON which ran for two years from 2014.


Trafalgar Studios.

Trafalgar Studios (2004) / Whitehall (1930) The Whitehall Theatre opened in 1930 to the designs of Edward A Stone, with Art Deco interiors, seating 634. During World War II it was known for revues, and later saucy striptease shows under the auspices of legendary ecdysiast Phyllis Dixey who made the theatre her home for five years. Later on the theatre became famous for the string of comedies affectionately known as “The Whitehall Farces”, starring actor-manager Brian Rix and his stock company from 1950-1966, several of these shows being televised as a Christmas treat by the BBC, which always pulled huge viewing figures. Rather out of the Theatreland area, the Whitehall struggled, housing a nude revue for five years from 1969 and then languished, mostly unused, for over a decade. Refurbishment work took place and the Whitehall reopened in 1986, once again with a rather chequered show catalogue but including some substantial runs. In 2004 the then owners, Amabassador Theatre Group, renamed the theatre, splitting the theatre horizontally to create a 380-seat main house in the old circle and underneath a 100-seat studio theatre in the previous rear stalls area. It has since survived on a diet of shows usually scheduled for 12/13 week runs. The Jamie Lloyd Company presented two very popular seasons of work there in two one-year residences in 2012-2014. Since 2016 the theatre has been owned by Trafalgar Entertainment Group. Sadly most of the Art Deco detailing has been either lost or painted over.


Shaftesbury Theatre.

Shaftesbury (1963) / New Prince’s (1911) The last theatre to have been built on Shaftesbury Avenue to date, the 1400-seat New Prince’s opened in 1911 to designs by Bertie Crewe. In the 1920s it was known for successful seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, presented by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and was most usually a musical house from then onwards. EMI bought the theatre in 1962 subsequently renaming it the Shaftesbury. This was where the progressive musical HAIR enjoyed a run from 1968 of almost 2,000 performances before a section of the ceiling fell in and the theatre was closed for repair, during which time its future was in jeopardy. In 1984 the Theatre of Comedy company bought the theatre and presented many comedies here, interspersed with visiting productions. Long-runners here include HAIRSPRAY which ran three years from 2007. The theatre was internally refurbished in 2006.


Gillian Lynne Theatre.

Gillian Lynne Theatre (2018) / New London (1973) One of London’s newest theatres, the New London was built on the site of the previous Winter Garden Theatre, and opened in 1973. Designed by architect Paul Tvrtkovic and scenic designer Sean Kenny with a Germanic, ultra-modern feel to it, it was a distinct break from the traditional West End theatre stock. Seating 1,000, its longest-running hit so far has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical CATS which ran from 1981 to 2002, which boasted having the first few rows of the front stalls on a revolve, giving birth to that legendary advertising line “No Admission While the Auditorium is in Motion”. CATS was choreographed by Dame Gillian Lynne, who the theatre was renamed for in mid 2018, some months before her death, making her the only female non-royal person named for a West End Theatre. The building has been owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatre group since 1991.


All photos by Unrestricted Theatre, (taken May 2019), unless otherwise credited

A trio of theatres

London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane (below) is currently unrecognisable – it is shrouded in scaffolding and portacabins as it undergoes major work in all parts of the theatre. It is due to reopen late 2020 with Disney’s FROZEN.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane at the start of April 2019, only visible due to its cream colonnade.
The same scene in late May. The building on the right of this picture has been bought and will form part of the new Theatre Royal Drury Lane complex. You can see the name on the ground floor windows.

On the exterior, the hoardings had been attractively decorated with panels about the theatre itself. Here are a few photographs I managed to grab back in April, so that you can enjoy in case you can’t get there.


Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo by Jim Linwood, used under CC2.0

Kingston’s Rose Theatre was opened in 2008. Founded by Sir Peter Hall (rather a pet project), and modelled on the original Elizabethan Rose Theatre on London’s Bankside, Rose Theatre Kingston is the largest producing theatre in South West London. It has been in the news this last week, as the local council have announced that the theatre’s grant will be withdrawn fully by 2022, citing unhappiness at the theatres “uncommercial” programme of events. Personally, I am always one to support theatre subsidy. In this case, though, I have never understood the construction of this theatre whereby sitting in the uncomfortable stalls (way behind the pit with bum-numbing concrete floor) can make you feel like you are sitting practically out in the foyer. Personally when I go to see a show I would like to do so in the 21st Century, not the 16th! As for the programming I cannot comment having only been there once, to see Northern Broadsides’ excellent FOR LOVE OR MONEY, in 2018, this venue serving as the southern outpost of its all-too-short tour. In all likelihood, I probably won’t be going there again, but I wish them success in surviving and serving the people of Kingston.


Image courtesy Pixabay

Nick Hytner and Nick Starr, creators of the successful Bridge Theatre by Tower Bridge, have announced that they are building a new 600-seat theatre in Kings Cross due to open in 2021. Let’s wish them success with it, as every addition to London’s theatre scene is positive. Let us also hope that the auditorium of the new theatre has better access than the Bridge. Although very good on things like ladies loos, for which a well-earned “thanks”, The Bridge’s only flaw is the inordinate amount of time it takes to get in and out of the auditorium- rather like getting porridge into a funnel. Not good for those eager for those tasty interval madeleine cakes, and detrimental also to those important interval bar sales! I do hope that the Bridge’s Front of House team are trained in having to deal with outbreaks of “madeleine rage”. Lets make incoming and outgoing easier and faster for your next venture please, gentlemen!

Image by SweetMellowChill from Pixabay