The Finborough’s SCROUNGER

Available on a very short viewing window is Athena Stevens’ fascinating play SCROUNGER, available to view from 9am on Saturday, 1 August until midnight on Monday, 3 August, and again from 9am until midnight on Monday, 31 August.

The first production of the Finborough Theatre’s 40th anniversary year, the world premiere of Finborough Theatre Playwright in Residence and Olivier Award nominee Athena Stevens’s new play SCROUNGER.

On the streets of Elephant and Castle, everyone likes to make speculations about Scrounger. She needs help, she must not be aware of the complexities of the world, she is sent from the demons to torture her mum… at least according to her Nigerian Uber driver.

Scrounger doesn’t care. A successful online personality, she’s got more power from her bedroom than anyone on the Southwark estates could dream of. She’s educated, she’s ballsy, and with a huge network of online allies, Scrounger is a woman who knows how to make change happen.

That is, until an airline destroys her wheelchair.

Inspired by real events and a lawsuit initiated by Stevens herself, Scrounger drives towards the realities of how Britain is failing its most vulnerable and the extreme cost paid by those seeking justice.

You can read my three and a half-star review of SCROUNGER here

Although this production is free to watch, please strongly consider making a donation to Finborough Theatre to enable it to reopen after this crisis has passed.

VIEWING PERIOD ENDED


Time to Remember: Spotlighting Richard Pilbrow’s life in musicals

Prompted by the publication of a new book, ANTHONY FIELD writes about the career of the man who single-handedly invented the language of modern stage lighting, RICHARD PILBROW. Richard and Anthony had been dear friends and producing partners for decades, and Anthony’s exit from the Arts Council after 27 years could only have been to work with someone as multi-talented as Richard, whose own company – Theatre Projects – gained Anthony as their Finance Director. Theatre Projects is a world-renowned company which has created some of the most significant and successful performing arts venues around the world over the last five decades. Now 87, Richard is President Emeritus of the Company. Enjoy reading about his fascinating journey through the theatre of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This article is from 2011.

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

Recently published is a long-awaited book A THEATRE PROJECT, an autobiographical memoir by Richard Pilbrow, the pioneer of contemporary stage lighting who developed his career as a theatre consultant and producer. Over the last five decades he has been involved in the production of many successful musicals.

In 1962 Donald Albery contracted him to work in a spectacular new show called BLITZ! with music by Lionel Bart. This production was to present Cockney London under Hitler’s bombardment during the Second World War – on stage, which had never seen its like before or since. Noel Coward described it as “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”. Sean Kenny who had created brilliant sets for OLIVER! went on to designing extraordinary sets for BLITZ! at the Adelphi and Richard Pilbrow’s account of the Royal Gala preview found the stage smoke engulfing the orchestra which had to stop playing. Fortunately the first night proved perfection.

This led to Tony Walton writing to ask Richard to meet Hal Prince in New York to discuss lighting a new Broadway musical which Tony was to design. Richard stayed with Tony and his wife, Julie Andrews then starring in CAMELOT and the next morning they discussed producing A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM by Burt Shevelove with music by Stephen Sondheim. This led to Hal Prince encouraging Richard to become a producer, establishing Theatre Projects as Hal’s London office

Their first London project was to be A FUNNY THING… and everyone thought that they were crazy to cast Frankie Howerd in it. They saw him play one of the broker’s men in panto at Coventry and Peter Cook persuaded them about his comic talent. However, the tour proved a nightmare with no laughs and the previews were frightening. The opening night finally arrived with Frankie’s “Comedy Tonight” introducing the notable group of British comedians – Kenneth Connor, Eddie Gray, Jon Pertwee and Robertson Hare brought the audience to its feet in recognition and welcome. The triumph ran for two years and Theatre Projects was the first-ever London management to close the show for a week after the first year to give the entire cast a holiday.

Amidst Richard’s full work programme of plays and consultancy for the new National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he continued to co-produce and light such musicals as HALF A SIXPENCE with Tommy Steele at the Cambridge Theatre and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Shaftesbury.

Richard plowed his profits from A FUNNY THING… into SHE LOVES ME which he adored. This had started as an idea of Julie Andrews to turn the film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER into a musical for her although her Disney contract for the MARY POPPINS film prevented her from appearing in SHE LOVES ME. The reviews in London were the kiss of death – “charming, charming, charming”-which did not help to pull in audiences. The show has never proved commercially successful but Richard was then excited with another score played to him by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

In 1964 Richard and Tony Walton designed and lit GOLDEN BOY on Broadway, with the book by Clifford Odets and music by Charles Strouse. Its success was partly due to the overwhelming projections for backgrounds which established a new method of designing musicals.

Returning to London, Richard applied himself to opening FIDDLER at Her Majesty’s Theatre although the whole theatre establishment told him that such a Jewish show would never succeed in the west End.

The long story of engaging Topol and the five-year run of FIDDLER has been retold many times. Suffice to note that all producers have their failures as well as successes. Although not a failure but the next Broadway musical to involve Richard was THE ROTHSCHILDS: I myself enjoyed it enormously when I saw it in 1970 but it was not a big hit, although it ran for over 500 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Back in London in 1968 Richard had opened his fourth musical in the West End which was Kander and Ebb’s CABARET starring Judi Dench at the Palace Theatre. Although Judi protested “I just can’t sing”, Hal Prince was enchanted with her, and declared “This will be the Real Sally Bowles”.

The next lighting venture was for Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY in 1971 in New York which Richard went on to produce in London at his favourite theatre, Her Majesty’s, with Elaine Stritch. It ran for 344 performances but did not recoup its capital. However, it established a long-term relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Richard demonstrated to London that musical theatre could be a profound theatrical form with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in 1975 with Jean Simmons at the Adelphi. This ran for 406 performances during which Virginia McKenna replaced Jean.

The 450 pages of this story of Richard Pilbrow’s life can hardly be summarised in one short article except by highlighting the musicals in which he was involved, which included THE GOOD COMPANIONS in 1974 at Her Majesty’s. This had a libretto by Ronald Harwood with music by Andre Previn. Then there was the large-scale spectacle of GONE WITH THE WIND at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace, and the failures of CARTE BLANCHE at the Phoenix and the revival of KISMET at the Shaftesbury. His first venture with Cameron Mackintosh was the revival of OKLAHOMA! at the Palace in 1980 and then with Tommy Steele again, he lit SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for Harold Fielding at the London Palladium.

The transfer of WEST SIDE STORY, revived at Leicester, to Her Majesty’s proved a big hit in 1984 and led to the production of LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC at the Adelphi.

There are still dreams and hopes of shows which never achieved their potential such as BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune, based on the 1930 movie ST. MARTIN’S LANE, and Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE. Very sadly the failure of the 1986 revival of A FUNNY THING… at the Piccadilly with a sick Frankie Howerd put an end to the wealth of Theatre Projects’ programme of musicals but Richard’s continued career in the US in the 21st century finds him lighting revivals of WHERE’S CHARLEY?, THE BOY FRIEND and the new A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

All in all, anyone wanting to read the whole background of the creation of musical theatre will find it in Richard Pilbrow’s engrossing book “A Theatre Project” published by Plasa Media.

AFTERWORD: You can find out more about Richard Pilbrow’s fascinating book A THEATRE PROJECT here


Time to Remember: The value of nurturing emerging creatives

At a time when the future of our theatre spaces are looking less secure than ever, the impact upon those who create the productions to fill our theatres is enormous.

The Kogod Cradle photo by Nick Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

My friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD was a passionate advocate of new talent, and, as he writes here, had been since the early days of his career. He recalls some of the many initiatives he founded. It is impossible to tell at this distance how many aspiring creatives his initiatives supported, but we can say with some certainty that without his passion and dedication, a fair number of the plays that have entertained you across the last fifty years may never have seen a stage. This article is from his writings in 2011.

The Arena Stage in Washington, not particularly noted as a hotbed of American theatre in the same category as Chicago or Seattle, has opened its new 200-seater space christened the Cradle. Thus, the Cradle will be a home in which to nurture new plays and playwrights.

In these days when investment in new work and young artists is difficult to attract, artistic directors are more inclined to revive classics than risk world premieres and even more important, second or third productions of new plays. But without talent we risk losing all creativity, not only in our theatres but also in our films, radio and television programming.

Over fifty years ago, when the Arts Council of Great Britain cared about creativity, it had evolved numerous schemes for investing in drama companies. There were annual grants, guarantees against loss, touring guarantees, transport subsidies to help bring audiences into theatres, training schemes, guarantees for new plays, guarantees for second and third productions of new plays, guarantees for neglected plays, grants for young peoples’ theatre, capital grants….the schemes were endless and constantly evolving. [Editorial Note: All these initiatives had stemmed from Anthony Field himself, as Finance Director of the Arts Council for 27 years, but -for the record- he was too modest to say that in this article!]

In 1960 I proposed that the Council might consider establishing a theatre in London which would be available for new work. There were at that time so many fringe theatres going out of business like the New Lindsey, the Boltons and the Irving, and other fringe theatres being run by artistic directors that it was becoming increasingly difficult for new, young producers to find a home for new plays.

In New York there were literally hundreds of off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and even off-off-off-Broadway venues for rent. They were not run by artistic directors with their own programmes but by landlords simply asking for a weekly rent for a 100-seater space for an open-ended run. Thus, I thought it would be productive for the Arts Council to fund one such space in London. After some consideration the Drama Department came back to me with a proposal to purchase the Shaftesbury Theatre (which was then called The Princes Theatre). I pointed out that it was completely the wrong size and configuration, with a 1400-seat capacity across three levels, which had completely the wrong ambiance for new work. Unfortunately, the whole scheme collapsed after that.

Now a small theatre in Washington has launched a new space to foster the craft of playwriting and the careers of playwrights. Further, it has rented a house with four bedrooms for playwrights to live and work close to the Cradle. Already one playwright who has spent time there has a new drama, THE MOUNTAINTOP, scheduled for Broadway, and another whose LEGACY OF LIGHT has been produced at a number of other regional theatres.

Arena Stage

Arena Stage, which has fostered the Cradle, has already benefitted financially from the musical NEXT TO NORMAL which has just closed after a two-year success on Broadway.


Lyric Hammersmith at 125

The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, celebrates its 125th anniversary on 20th July.

The Lyric Theatre is a rare and truly remarkable survivor. It was originally built as a music hall in 1888 on Bradmore Grove, Hammersmith by a local businessman, Charles Cordingly . It was rebuilt and enlarged on the same site twice, firstly in 1890 and then in 1895 (with additional remodeling in 1899) by the master theatre architect Frank Matcham. The 1895 reopening, as The New Lyric Opera House, was graced by an opening address by the famous actress Lillie Langtry.

Lyric Opera House – drawing from the ERA, 4 Feb 1899
An early Lyric programme

After a chequered history of seventy years of successes and slumps, the theatre went up for auction in 1965 but was only finally sold in 1968. According to some sources, the auction was won by a “Mr Richards” who bought the theatre for £26,000. However, the Council believed that they had bought the theatre at the same auction, for the same price. As a result, the theatre went back to auction and the Council eventually bought it for £37,500.

1969 Awaiting demolition

Everything pointed towards the closure and demolition of the theatre. However, a local campaign started to save the Lyric- well, some of it. The campaign argued that the auditorium was of such a high standard that it should be dismantled and reconstructed within a new structure a short distance away in King Street, a much more central and visible location in Hammersmith’s centre. The campaign gathered momentum and eventually succeeded.

The epic work of reconstructing the original auditorium within a new structure is a very rare occurrence today – and even more so over 50 years ago. But with patience, planning and perseverance the work continued, and by 1979 the Lyric Theatre’s new building welcomed the original Lyric’s 550-seat auditorium, opened by HM the Queen.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed
Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

In 2018 the auditorium’s glorious plasterwork was restored and refurbished to a high standard, as you can see in a detail photo below.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

Today, although closed due to COVID-19, the Lyric is thriving as a vital part of its community, and I hope that the theatre enjoys another 50 years of success ahead!

Anyone wishing to explore the removal of the original auditorium plasterwork can see a comprehensive range of fascinating photos at the arthurlloyd.com website here


Gaiety Theatre, Isle of Man, celebrates 120th anniversary

The Gaiety Theatre celebrated its 120th anniversary on 16th July.

Located in the Isle of Man, was another Frank Matcham work; it was a complete renovation of an earlier structure, opening on July 16, 1900. The theatre enjoyed success until the First World War decimated the tourist industry upon which so much of the island’s infrastructure depended. A slow decline continued through the decades, until in 1971 the theatre was slated from demolition; it was saved at the eleventh hour thanks to a vigorous local campaign. The Council’s purchase of the building signified a brighter chapter in the theatre’s checkered history.

The theatre underwent significant improvements but also commenced a decades-long cycle of painstaking restoration, guided by the Theatre manager of the day, Mervin Russell Stokes, who was later made an MBE for his contribution to the project. It was he who, with help, arranged for the funding and closely supervised the work done, carrying out some of it himself, always with a view to strict authenticity, even down to having the original paint colours, wallpaper and carpeting recreated in order to bring the theatre back -as near as possible- to its original appearance.

The Centenary celebrations were able to present a fully-restored gem of a playhouse which is a true jewel in the crown of the island’s community.

Photo by Claire Schreuder