Theatre FootNotes for June 2019; A summary of other theatre events in my diary

13th June – GLOBAL INDIGENOUS VOICES at the British Library. Third in a series of Global Voices Theatre events, this was presented in association with Border Crossings as part of the tenth annual Origins festival 2019 . Fifteen-minute extracts from five plays from New Zealand, Alaska, Canada, and America were given a rehearsed reading for an audience of around 150. The event was guest curated by Madeleine Sayet and presented by Global Voices Artistic Director Lora Krasteva and Producer Robin Skyer. Global Voices Theatre is now an Arts Council funded organisation, yet another reason to celebrate their continued development.

18th June – CASH COW by Oli Forsyth. At Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 20 July.

Tennis is a dynamic and exciting visual game. CASH COW, as presented here, is. so static and non-visual that it could play on radio with no loss whatsoever. A smart set and some fancy lighting does not change the fact that this is a talk-heavy, resolutely un-visual show.

The play’s viewpoint is rather belied by the title. Two parents are told that their ten-year old child is exceptional at playing tennis, so they invest effort and resources into honing her talent. So begins a 20-year journey studded with tennis coaches, globe-trotting, using drugs to manipulate natural development to fit the rigid playing schedules, separation on different continents, and much more. Money is the driver, and the child pays the price.

So at what point did that ordinary, hopeful parent become too pushy, and then manipulative and then all-consumed? We see the slide down the slippery slope of good intentions, as the parents lose control of – and contact with – their daughter. At what point did their child become artificially induced into being a product? At what point did the parent start to refer to himself as the manager and promoter? And at what point did the parents sit down and agree “I made her” and “she owes us”?

Anyone can see that the extremes that the parents go to seem bound to engender damage in youngsters who need space and help in exploring themselves. What is very telling is that every discussion with the child featured in the play is dominated by the parent – and the (unseen) child’s answers are always one word- OK, no or yes. The child, as far as I remember, is never even given the respect of a name- always referred to as her, she, love or honey. So at no point in the whole 20 year span of this story do we ever hear the parents having any sort of discussion with the child, asking for her own ideas and what she wants to do.

At one point it is suggested that the coach is physically abusing the child, and the parent’s rightful initial revulsion is rapidly distorted by the calculation of the effect that any action will have on their investment, causing the audience to draw parallels – so surely both the coach and the parents are abusing the child, just in different ways?

Escalating dramatic distortions of relationships climax with inter-familial lawsuits and the ending is effective, suggesting the price of “success” is not worth the paper its written on.

As the distortions in behaviour happen incrementally over time, the play’s jumping about in time helps us to see the differences in a more marked way, but the audience have to do a lot of work in placing the pieces. Where it backfires is that the scenes are so short and bitty that one tires of the monotony of the concept, trying the audience’s patience and making the show feel much longer than its 90 minutes.

The fact that I have not been a parent or a child prodigy may colour my take on this, but I found it impossible to care for any of these characters, or to be particularly drawn in to this long 90-minute piece that a lot of the audience watched with their eyes shut.

Perhaps this show will be a wake-up call for those countless parents out there who are driven to push their child harder than they once pushed themselves. Perhaps it will cause them to consider the price that will be paid by all parties. And whether kids should just be allowed to be kids.

21st June – Royal Central School Graduation show – a musical A PERMANENT STATE OF EMERGENCY. Final year students in a specially-commissioned new musical, directed by Sue Dunderdale.

27th June – THE BASEMENT TAPES – seen as part of the Incoming Festival at New Diorama Theatre in London.

It is always exciting to see new work from other parts of the world visiting the UK and so I was intrigued by this New Zealand originated show which sounded full of possibilities. Sadly, most remained unrealised after this disappointing, overlong hour.

You spend a lot of time in the dark during this show. About half of the running time, in fact. Listening to a taped voice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for great theatre, in my opinion.

We are in a basement of a house in New Zealand. A teenage girl rummages around in boxes of her dead grandmother’s belongings in a superficial attempt to sort things out, making more mess as she goes. The piece gradually morphs into a kind of spook story as the discovery of a cassette tape player and some significantly labelled tapes reveals the voice of the deceased grandmother describing in dreamlike detail a murder that she may have committed.

There were significant moments of potential when I hoped that the show would spark into life, with the discovery of the tape machine and tapes: the smell of a garment embodying the sensory memory of the grandma was also a telling moment: also, the first notes of the dead grandma’s voice. All had much more potential but they appear to have just been used as punctuation.

However, the indulgent dancing to loud music which occupies the first five minutes, the poor and immature jokes, as well as what felt like padding to fill out the hour started to try the patience.  When we strayed into spooky territory with weird lights and sounds, it all just got a bit daft. Miserable old sod? Maybe. But it appears I was not alone. The teenagers sitting just along from me were checking their twitter feeds repeatedly while all this was going on. A group listening to a voice in the dark can be a very interesting experience, but here it just didn’t seem to ignite. Mind you, the illuminated exit signs and phone screens dotted around the audience didn’t help.

This could have been a very touching examination of teenage experience of bereavement, but it proved very hard to care for this careless teenager in this teenage Stephen King mash-up. The soundscape created was just OK but could have been a lot more textured and interesting (and scary!).

I was sad to have left feeling disappointed.

Read my Theatre Preview roundup for London’s Barbican Life magazine (Summer 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!

Catching Up with….Alex Wood, Writer of NINE FOOT NINE, playing this week in Bristol, Manchester and London

Alex is the newly-appointed Editor of, the UK’s leading theatre website. As a critic, he is also involved in assessing for the Offies Awards (Off West-End Theatre). When he has any other time, he is a writer of plays. Alex made his Edinburgh writing debut last year with NINE FOOT NINE, an interesting and engaging sci-fi play with a lot to say about gender, size and power. I was lucky enough to meet Alex a couple of years ago and I know that he is a significant rising talent. The play was shortlisted for the 2018 LET Award, and showcased at the Royal Court as part of their International Women’s Day programme. Having seen NINE FOOT NINE last year, I wanted to talk to Alex about its return to Bristol, Manchester and London this week, produced by Sleepless Theatre Company, as part of the INCOMING FESTIVAL.

Alex Wood

Alex, thanks for talking with me. Firstly, could you tell those readers who haven’t seen it what the play is about?

NINE FOOT NINE starts with an off-the-wall premise – what would happen if most women around the world grew to over nine feet tall. It blends a pretty low-key sci-fi premise (like something out of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!) with discussions about gender, power and relationships. We follow a family of three as they go through this strange experience together, and see how it shapes them. 

How did the idea for NINE FOOT NINE come to you?

It was actually during a discussion with the show’s director (and Sleepless’ artistic director), Helena Jackson, while at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. We were talking about heights and identity (I think it was after I watched a show by Babolin at Bedlam that it came to me!) So Sleepless has been there throughout. I also did a lot of research on physicality, gender and height in history before 2016 so the flame had been burning for a little while. 

How long did it take to develop into a full script?

A LOT longer than I initially expected! I had some scenes started in 2016 and we had a rough draft finished in 2017. But that version really really didn’t work at all – there were twice as many characters, strange subplots and a man bookending the show by giving two lectures on Saussure (a Swiss linguist and semiotician). We had to have a very thorough rewrite before getting to the stage in 2018.  

Nine Foot Nine

I saw the show at its pre-Edinburgh tryouts last year at The Bunker. In what ways did that run help you to refine the show?

The six performances we did at the Bunker were an absolute blessing – the venue was so full of brilliant individuals (also a big shout-out to Matt Maltby at Pint Sized for all his feedback) who told us what we needed to hear – i.e., what worked and what really didn’t. And watching the show for the first time, there were a lot of tricky bits. We got rid of two scenes and added a further three – refining the concept, getting rid of some distracting interludes and making it all a lot fleeter. By the time we got to Edinburgh it was a completely new offering. 

The show is fully captioned and I believe all venues are fully accessible for the current mini-tour. As a strong supporter of accessibilty myself, I wondered if there was something specific that made inclusiveness (for actors and audiences) such an important thing for you with this play? 

I think the reason why it is so important is because in the play it isn’t important – while the show is creatively captioned and Alex, who plays Cara, speaks BSL, none of this affects the plot, the concept or the themes. Productions don’t have to be directly about inclusivity to be inclusive, which is something that I think we’re seeing a big shift towards in recent years  (fingers crossed, this will continue). 

Do you have the same cast as last year?

Exactly the same as last Edinburgh! 

What future life do you see for the play?

At the moment a few venues are interested in giving the show another life so we’re keeping all the options open (and keeping the set in my basement…). But for now we’re just thrilled to be back as part of Incoming, there are so many staggeringly great shows that are part of the festival that it’s an honour to rub shoulders with them. The whole team at the festival are delightful. 

Are you working on other ideas that you can tell us about?

I’ve got a few plays in the pipeline but finding time to really get them mounted has been a nightmare! There’s an all-female historical drama and a love story set in Pudsey (where I was born) that are almost ready. Whether or not they’ll see the light of day is another question…hopefully I’ll be able to say more in 2020!

Nine Foot Nine. Alex Jackson. Photo by Katie Edwards.

Nine Foot Nine plays as part of the Incoming festival, visiting Bristol on 27 June (Tobacco Factory Theatres, 8.30pm, details here), Manchester on 29 June (HOME, 8.30pm, details here, and London on 30 June (New Diorama, 7.00pm, details here). Last few tickets at all venues- hurry!

Views: “Is Theatre Worth It?” – answering Mark Sands’ view of May 9th

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Gary Donaldson, Unrestricted Theatre’s founder, responds to Mark Sands’ question: Is Theatre Worth It?

Reading Mark Sands’ VIEWS article for Unrestricted Theatre posted on May 9th, “Is Theatre Worth It?”, I was intrigued by the huge scale of his question. There are so many ways of responding, but I will “dive in” by tackling it firstly from a financial perspective.

As Mark mentioned, his journey to and from the venue, and time around the actual performance gave rise to a number of financial transactions (train, drink, food, etc) that multiplied the financial cost of his “night out” and benefitted a number of associated businesses. This is true for all of us, whether visiting a “room above a pub” theatre or the National Theatre, we may well spend more (often much more) than the ticket price of the event.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So can we actually figure out what this means to the wider economy? A detailed study carried out for NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues ((NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11, ERS (February 2012)) evidenced that

“for every £1 of public subsidy invested in NGCV, an estimated £4.27 return on investment is generated across the North East economy”.

This bears out the findings of earlier research conducted in the 1980s, commissioned by my late colleague Anthony Field who spent 27 years as Finance Director of the Arts Council (from 1957 to 1983), which found that:

“for every £1million of public subsidy in the arts and cultural scene the Treasury received back some £3million. These returns come from VAT on the sale of tickets, taxes levied on producing companies, performing artists, technicians and musicians, the returns from those who make up their audiences and the benefits derived from all the accompanying trades such as hotels and transport.”

So here we have solid proof that our local economies are boosted wherever the arts are present. This, therefore, makes the arts potentially more important in times of economic turbulence. One of the unforeseen benefits of the 2008/9 UK financial crisis has been that, in some senses, the arts have been taken back by younger people. By that, I mean that artists, no longer willing to play by the strict confines of the established order, are taking it into their own hands to produce and present theatre. As an example, the very talented actors who form a majority of the Front Of House staff at the Old Vic Theatre, encouraged by their enthusiastic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, have created their own company, called 1881, and are putting on shows, learning as they go along and putting their learning into practice by creating the very opportunities which were previously unavailable to them. The 2012 London Olympics also acted as a catalyst for much creative work which was partly unfunded and therefore almost totally reliant on voluntary contributions. Again, artists contributed for the greater good and in doing so created new opportunities for experience and learning.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In another huge shift in our technological landscape, the recent explosion in accessible media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and many smaller platforms) have in a way democratised media opportunity. It was interesting to note a very detailed study done by Jane Deitch for Stage UK about UK drama graduate destinations, which highlighted the fact that a growing proportion of graduates are taking unpaid work which is shared via Youtube or similar sites, as ways of getting their CV off the ground, and being seen. A parallel rapid expansion in crowdfunding platforms has meant that anyone can now get involved in supporting a project to achieve a degree of development, with the benefits more broadly defined as perhaps an exchange, or indeed a more altruistic approach in just knowing that you have supported “your” pet projects. So the benefits, the “worth it”s, are many and multi-directional for audiences, supporters, artists and venues. And they are growing every day.

It is also worth remembering what is not always apparent to us in the very selective approach of the big media groups. We have a proliferation of sports TV and web channels and print outlets in the UK, yet the absolute fact remains that more people attend events in the arts and entertainment in any one week than attend sports events in the same period. So once again, it’s official, the arts are bigger than sport, OK? Interesting when we see blanket coverage of Wimbledon and the World Cup and Euro football, rapidly followed by the next Olympics. Where is all the arts coverage to feed the needs of those who want it? Sky Arts. Is that all there is, people?

So we have examined the financial side, now what are the wider benefits of theatre? Focussing on theatrical productions, let us first examine “benefits” from the audience’s point of view. Buying a theatre ticket is a financial investment in the community arts provision, whether this is subsidised or not. It may also boost business for hotels, restaurants, and public, private and hire transport. Furthermore, theatre can be seen as a social event, often meeting with others to go in a group, or celebrating a special event such as a birthday or anniversary. The fact that a communal experience is being played out can also mean the opportunity to participate in a shared experience and a feeling of community, albeit fleeting, which can reinforce the fabric of social bonds. Businesses often use theatre as a teambuilding event, prestige enhancer or company perk, with proven value (or else it would not happen as often as it does!). Attendance at a venue may give marketing opportunities for exposure to other future events (via flyers, emails etc) in order to grow a future audience. It is good to see marketers learning from other types of organisation, by conducting audience surveys and linking purchases along the line of “if you liked that, you may like this”.

The benefits to the talents who write, produce, direct, act, play and sing are many. As well as to the performers, also for the lighting and sound teams, the stage hands and so many others upon whom the success of the performance may depend in some part. For all these people there may be the chance to earn money, as well as the vital opportunity to learn from the experience of practising their chosen craft. Not to mention the chance to engage with other artists in a communal way which may benefit them in a number of ways, including reinforcing their self-belief and resilience. The chance to be seen and evaluated by audiences, whether they be general public, friends and family, critics or agents is one which can reap many positive -if unquantifiable -benefits.

The arts significantly contribute to the texture and quality of life in ways that no other activities can. The arts can entertain and enlighten us, and in doing so have the ability to provoke every possible reaction from simple joy to thoughtful solemnity to outrage. They can stimulate us to thought, change our mindset, argue important points, shine a light on subjects otherwise thought untouchable, and generally promote a sense of being alive, of being involved in a society of people actively participating in life in all its richness and complexity.

So the bottom lines are these: the arts can pay back four times (or more) what they cost, and more people go to experience the arts each and every week than go to all sports. They also significantly contribute to the quality of life of the nation. The arts aren’t a luxury; they’re a necessity.

Is Theatre Worth It? Hell, YES!

Related Links:
NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues, Economic Impact Assessment 2010-11


Photo: Mitzi de Margary

THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING is one of the must-see shows of 2019, currently playing at the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall until June 29th, produced by Ashley Cook for Troupe theatre company.

I first came across Troupe in 2013 when their first production, a spirited and sensitive revival of R C Sherriff’s THE WHITE CARNATION played with great success at the Finborough Theatre, later transferring to Jermyn Street Theatre. Ashley contacted me then to discuss investment, and we have continued our conversation – on and off – ever since. Troupe’s work mixes well-chosen revivals -such as the centenary year revival of DEAR BRUTUS by J M Barrie, a full-blooded award-winning revival of THE CARDINAL by James Shirley, Rodney Ackland’s AFTER OCTOBER and Robert Bolt’s FLOWERING CHERRY – with brave new writing like the award-nominated, coruscating RASHEEDA SPEAKING with the great Tanya Moodie, and their current show, Joy Wilkinson’s THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING, back after a sell out season last Autumn. Multi award-nominated, Troupe’s work is always worth seeing; I have been lucky enough to have seen all of their shows except one.

Ashley Cook (pictured below) is the resourceful and engaging founder/producer of Troupe, and I wanted to talk to him about the return of SWEET SCIENCE…. and how it all started.

Ashley Cook. Photo: Mitzi de Margary

Ashley, thanks for chatting with me. How did you first come to set up Troupe?

I started producing as a way of occupying my time during the day when I was in a long running show in the West End as an actor. The first thing I produced got a good response and I enjoyed the process so I decided to formalise things, formed a company (Troupe) and started putting on shows at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

How did SWEET SCIENCE first come to your attention?

I put out a big call to literary agents in 2014, looking for new plays to produce and Joy’s agent sent me her play. It took four years, a bit of reworking of the script, and for me to get to the right place financially to produce it. Finally it opened at Southwark Playhouse in 2018, which ended up being the perfect time for it, coming as it did in a year that saw so much brilliant female-led theatre.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

“The play…and Wilton’s…the perfect match”

What was it that caught your eye and spurred you to produce it?

I just loved Joy’s idea – Victorian female boxers fighting for their freedom – her beautiful story gripped me from the first page. I just knew audiences would want to see it. 

The Southwark Playhouse season of SWEET SCIENCE last year was very successful, selling out a month’s run in the 100-seat studio, and garnering you a useful crop of five- and four- star reviews. Troupe has transferred shows before, but moving to a 350-seater outside of the traditional theatre quarter was quite a leap. What were your key considerations in making that move?

Budget. Budget. Budget. I knew that in a larger space Joy’s epic play could really breathe and spread its wings and had the potential to really make an impact on audiences in an original Victorian music hall, but obviously it all came down to finance. So I had to do a lot of budgeting, juggling figures and working out how much funding and investment was possible. For the first time, Troupe also began working with a marketing agency (the fantastic EMG) as I knew I couldn’t rely on my own knowledge and experience of theatre marketing for the next stage of the play’s life. We had to bring in the professionals! But I had an instinct that people would want to see the show at Wilton’s and that our good reviews from the Southwark Playhouse production and the word-of-mouth that was following the show would carry us through. It’s an ‘event’ show and Wilton’s is a ‘destination’ theatre so I sensed it was the right move to make.

” it’s been lovely hearing how vocal and passionate audiences get about the play….”

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

How did Wilton’s emerge as a potential venue for the second season?

I had been in touch with Holly Kendrick, Executive Director of Wilton’s, about the potential of transferring a previous show there. I just didn’t think that project would quite work out financially, but I had always wanted to produce something there when the right thing came along. When it was clear The Sweet Science of Bruising was attracting good houses at Southwark Playhouse I invited Holly to see the show and we both agreed that Wilton’s was the perfect place to give it another life. The play is set partly in a Victorian amphitheatre and Wilton’s was built ten years before it begins. Holly had never programmed a boxing show there before, let alone a Victorian lady boxing show, so it ticked a lot of boxes for both of us and it just seemed like the perfect match.

How did you feel once the venue had been secured?

Excited, but then scared. We had to start filling all those seats!

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

It’s always good to see you on stage. Does taking a role in the production help to keep you anchored in the show (as well as keeping the costs down)?

It definitely helps me keep costs down with such large casts! And, yes, I suppose it does help me to be really connected to the work on all levels, but I only ever cast myself in the show if the part is absolutely right and the director is fully on board. I’m also very good at switching hats!

“I just knew audiences would want to see it…”

Wilton’s brings a special set of demands when staging a play. How did you go about making it work?

The most important thing was finding actors whose voices could work in that very specific acoustic. It isn’t just about volume. It’s about diction and clarity too. We wanted to make sure we fully embraced the whole building itself as our set, and forced ourselves to be brave enough to abandon the intimacy of the previous studio production and go big at Wilton’s. We also really wanted to involve the audiences this time and give them free reign to clap and cheer at our lady boxing matches. The audience are very much a third character as we break the fourth wall several times in the show. It was much easier to do this at Wilton’s as the space is designed for it, and it’s been lovely hearing how vocal and passionate audiences get about the play when we invite them in. It’s great to hear them clap, cheer, boo, hiss and laugh in equal measure as the production needs it to take off.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

Has the play changed much from last year, apart from in terms of staging?

We’ve tweaked the script a little, but not much has changed. The main changes are that the fights and movement sequences are bigger and bolder for our larger venue.

Troupe has certainly lived up to its aspirations to showcase worthwhile rediscoveries alongside challenging new writing. Can you tell us what’s next for Troupe? 

You’ll have to watch this space!

Highly-recommended THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING continues at the beautiful time-capsule of Wilton’s Music Hall until 29 June. Information and tickets here

Read my four-star review of SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING here

To follow the work of Troupe, take a look at their website here