119-year old Camden theatre beauty gets facelift

Work begins…. (photo taken March 5th by Unrestricted Theatre)

Housed inside a Grade II-listed London theatre, popular Camden music venue Koko announced its closure ahead of a £40 million refurbishment, which will involve the purchase of buildings either side of the venue to expand into rehearsal and performance spaces, a broadcast studio, restaurants and shops in another example of the continuing trend towards vertically integrated entertainment offerings. Thankfully the original listed auditorium will be unaltered in the refurbishment.

The building started life in 1900 as the Camden Theatre, opened by the leading star of her day, Ellen Terry, and designed by leading theatre architect W G R Sprague, originally seating over 2400. In 1909 it was reborn as the Camden Hippodrome, a variety theatre and in 1913 became a cinema, which lasted until World War Two. Purchased by the BBC in 1945, it became a radio theatre, the chief recording home of hit radio shows such as The Goon Show and many others, and it was in pretty much continuous use for over two decades.

When the BBC moved out in 1972 (to relocate to the Golders Green Hippodrome), the building lay empty for some time before being revived as concert venue The Music Machine, later retitled Camden Palace and most recently refurbished as Koko in 2004. Its current capacity is around 1500.

Let’s wish the owners every success and look forward to a long and successful future life for this Camden beauty.

Read the story run by the Evening Standard here

Koko in 2016 (photo courtesy Philafrenzy)

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

GLOBAL FEMALE VOICES (Arcola) Extracts of five plays debut in the UK in a one-night only reading event , launching the pioneering Global Voices Theatre company created by rising star Lora Krasteva. Plays selected from a global submission of 93 works and curated by East London artist Fauve Alice.

LIPA Graduating Students London Showcase (Trafalgar Studios). Always worth checking out the talent pouring from the Uni that brought us Adam Penford (Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse) and Selladoor’s founders David Hutchinson and Phillip Rowntree as well as the brilliant director Jamie Lloyd, to name just a few.

BARE- LAMDA students’ graduation musical (LAMDA). Good performances in interesting youth-focussed musical, soon to be professionally presented in London.

KEITH? (Arcola)”Tartuffe” put in a blender with lumpy results. A few really funny lines and some good acting but, sadly, too flimsy to stand up.

EDEN (Hampstead Theatre Downstairs) Trump-style “property war” play which in my opinion hasn’t enough new to say or depth of character to give the diligent cast much to work with.

THE AMERICAN CLOCK (Old Vic) The third production I have seen in London (after the National debut in 1986 and the tiny Finborough in 2012) and this is (sadly) the least effective. Clarke Peters reaps whatever plaudits can be salvaged for standing in at late notice.

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. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b0ead0eb-63f2-29dc-e040-e00a18060c48

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