I was at the National Theatre last night to witness a new era of technology. Not some new wizardry on stage or even backstage, but right in the audience. Several people sat around me wearing rather futuristic, oversized specs. These were the new Smart Caption Glasses, designed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, which debuted very recently.
The National Theatre has always been ambitious in finding new ways to help audiences enjoy theatre, for example the broadcast to cinemas of plays from NTLive – now ten years old, which have brought the best theatre to millions across the country and around the world.
Now, the National’s ambition to make theatre more accessible for everyone takes another step forward with Smart Caption Glasses. They work by projecting the captioned speech onto the inside of the lenses for hard of hearing and deaf patrons to read. As I understand it, the captions are placed to appear within the scene, close to where the actor is speaking.
Until now, these patrons have had to content themselves with one or two specifically captioned performances where the equipment has to be set up, loaded, synced and run, and the script is relayed line by line through caption boards at either side of the stage. These boards have been a lifeline for many people to be able to enjoy theatre. But, if people could not attend those very few performances, they had to miss out. A crazy situation which negatively impacted many people’s ability to experience the arts; because the arts weren’t listening to them!
Four years in the technology development, Smart Caption Glasses are now available at the National Theatre, and can be booked when you book your tickets. You collect them from a member of Front of House staff and the specs are flexible enough to comfortably fit over your existing specs (if you wear any).
It was really good to see how the Front of House team were helping the users come to grips with the glasses; as always the staff were kind, patient and friendly, and the surrounding audience members were definitely intrigued! The users themselves seemed very happy at having been given the confidence of support in this new technology, and were fully engaged with the production. By coincidence the performance I was attending was a captioned one, but it may be that the new glasses will make these a thing of the past!
Well done, the National! How terrific that deaf and hard of hearing audience members can now attend any performance at the National and enjoy the fruits of this digital revolution. Now that’s real inclusivity! The next hope must be that all theatres might be able to adopt -or adapt- this technology to serve their own audiences and grow their appeal to their own, local audiences.
Read more about Smart Caption Glasses on the National Theatre websitehere
There is an interesting item about the Glasses on the BBC Radio 4 You and Yours programme of 13 March, which for a limited time you can access here (item is 18’05 minutes in until 26’25)
I was thrilled to see that amongst the nominations for the Olivier Awards recently announced, in the category Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre (in plain terms, off-West End) two of this blog’s recommendations, THE PHLEBOTOMIST , (the debut play by Ella Road), and GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM ( nominated for the accomplished performance of Jonathan Hyde) were both in the final shortlist of five .
I wish both productions every success with their nominations, it’s a pity that both cannot win. Actually, had this blog been running a few months earlier, I would definitely have recommended a third nominated piece, EVERY DAY I MAKE GREATNESS HAPPEN, for the hyper-intense performance of Moe Bar-El as a super-slippery teenager.
Both plays are worth seeing, if you can. GENTLY runs at The Park Theatre London until March 16th, and THE PHLEBOTOMIST begins a return season at Hampstead Theatre from March 19- April 20
IN BRIEF 100 year-old play detailing an Edwardian woman’s search for an authentic life is impeccably cast and acted but the material is too slight and static to sustain on stage.
Seeing a show about a woman’s struggle to find herself in a male-dominated world seemed a good choice of viewing to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. This previously unproduced early play by the much-lauded Edwardian playwright Harley Granville Barker is lovingly brought to the stage by Trevor Nunn, whose work is always worth seeing. Complimented by a simple yet effective stage design, minimal but elegant lighting effects and pinpoint accuracy in the costume department, it was obvious that this was a labour of love by the creative team.
Playing at the 70-seat Jermyn Street Theatre, this 90-minute play (excluding interval) played to an appreciative, quiet audience.
Agnes, having left her overbearing husband, works at painting by the sea. Agnes is visited by Otto, a fellow painter who has emotional feelings for her, and later by a representative of her husband who wishes her to return to him. This character is also besotted with Agnes, representing the accepted norms of society as a constant reminder of what society then expected of women. Agnes rebels, moving to France with Otto, where she discovers an uneasy companionship with a fellow English lady, a widow, whose presence creates tensions that eventually lead Agnes to evaluate her situation and start a new chapter in her quest for an independent life on her own terms.
The play reflects both extremities of the social panorama of the time, polite society and the unconventional world of the artist; Agnes is at home with neither. Her conflicted state is also underscored by the fact that neither we or her fellow characters see any of her work, until the end, which in itself finally feels like a small but significant breakthrough for the character.
The play itself feels rather like a draft, not a finished piece. It is so static and lengthily, heavily discursive that it could almost have been played on radio and lost practically nothing in the telling. However, the cast were uniformly excellent with a detailed and expert pair of central performances from Naomi Frederick as the delicate, pale but quietly determined Agnes, and Matthew Flynn as Otto, her warm but mercurial Danish artist lover. Both gave performances which were painterly-rich in subtlety and nuance. The whole cast do excellent work, and it is a tribute to the casting that the face of each actor suggests the Edwardian era, which is a help to the credibility of the production.
The exploration of a woman’s feelings and her right to an authentic life in a patriarchal society is a vital (and still relevant) issue. Scripted here by a young man, it feels sincere but somewhat muted next to the work of writers such as Githa Sowerby whose play “Rutherford and Son” was pretty much written at the same time as this play, with its strong and outspoken female characters. Nevertheless, we all need to be reminded of women’s struggles through history, and as such this play is an elegant, though small, voice joining those others that echo down the ages.
Agnes Colander plays Jermyn Street Theatre until March 16th. Information and tickets here. The play has also received 5 Offie (Off West End Theatre) Nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Lighting, Director and Set design.
Peterborough’s beautiful Art Deco Odeon cinema was splendidly restyled to be given a new life as the Broadway Theatre in 2001. Since then, it has had a very bumpy ride as regards managements and has had to suffer going into receivership, a major fire in 2011, and many other indignities.
It had been on the Theatres Trust “Theatres At Risk Register” since 2016 and was recently threatened by redevelopment. Thankfully that was rejected and the venue now has a saviour in global entertainment company Selladoor, whose Venues division have taken over and will reopen the theatre in September, renamed the Peterborough New Theatre. Selladoor are best known as entertainment producers, but are steadily increasing their roster of theatres that they manage, in the UK including other theatres in Blackpool, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. Let’s wish them well with the rebirth of a much-loved local resource.
The weather’s getting warmer. The evenings are getting lighter. So get yourself out of the house and see some of the amazing shows coming to somewhere near you!
Opening off-West End
One of last year’s best discoveries was THE PHLEBOTOMIST, Ella Road’s award-nominated debut play, which totally sold out its season at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs. Set in a tantalisingly near future, the drama revolves around how each individual’s potential future life is completely predetermined….by the score from one single blood test. The audience I was with absolutely hugged this play from start to finish.
Now, the play returns, this time moving to Hampstead’s larger Main House (one of the few plays to have made that leap). Repeating her accomplished performance from last year, Jade Anouka plays the title role. It will be interesting to see how it makes the transition to the larger Main House after the intimacy of the smaller Downstairs studio, however the strength of the writing means that I have already rebooked. Highly recommended! Playing 19 March to 20 April.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was a wildly successful 2006 road movie , and now a musical version originating from Off-Broadway gets its European premiere at the Arcola, where it runs from 21 March to 11 May. A very strong cast includes Olivier-nominated Laura Pitt-Pulford, twice Olivier-nominated Paul Keating and TMA nominated Gary Wilmot. This show is the first major collaboration between the Arcola and Selladoor productions, the prolific global entertainment producers. After London’s run, you can catch it on an extensive UK tour from May until November.
Touring the UK extensively from March to July after opening in Wimbledon at the end of March, the hit tribal rock musical HAIR returns in the much – acclaimed 50th anniversary production. Cast includes the ever-watchable Marcus Collins (TV’s X-Factor, Hairspray), Jake Quickenden (Dancing on Ice) and a relative newcomer with a fantastic voice, Kelly Sweeney (watch out for her!).
Touring the UK
It’s OK to not be OK. That’s the message of A SUPER HAPPY STORY (ABOUT FEELING SUPER SAD) a very funny, helpfully honest and insightful cabaret musical about depression. Sally’s a happy person. She doesn’t let little things get her down and almost never cries. But she’s got an illness. It makes her feel like she isn’t the person she wants to be, but she doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Written by Olivier Award winner Jon Brittain (Rotterdam and Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho) with music by Matthew Floyd Jones (Frisky & Mannish). It’s a joyful, buoyant, gleeful, slightly silly, sugar-coated, unrelenting and completely super happy show! Except for the bits about depression. “A Super Happy Story is Superb” said The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner.. and she was right! I am so glad that I went and I think you will be too. Touring UK-wide through to June. In March you can see it at Milton Keynes, Newbury, New Milton, Eastleigh, Oxford, Gillingham, Diss, Banbury, Slough, Salisbury and Bristol
good dog – set during the early noughties – tells the story of growing up in a multi-cultural community, and the everyday injustices that drive people to take back control.
Mum’s promised him that bike so even when school or homelife bites, he knows to keep his chin up, his head down and his shirt clean. No harsh word, no sudden push to the ground will distract him from growing up to be a good man. Because in the end, everyone who’s good gets what they deserve. Don’t they?
Delicately observed and fearlessly told by writer Arinzé Kene (Misty at Bush Theatre and Trafalgar Studios), good dog completes its second national tour after four-star reviews in 2017, now starring the very impressive emerging actor Kwaku Mills (The End Of Eddy, Unicorn Theatre 2018). In March you can see it at Birmingham, Oxford, Tonbridge, Salisbury and ending the tour in London
Here’s one not to be missed for any of you who love great writing and great acting. The prestigious annual Papatango playwriting competition winners are always worth seeing. This year’s Prize winner, THE FUNERAL DIRECTOR by Iman Qureshi, is a compassionate, incisive and heartfelt play about gender, religion and sexuality in 21st century Britain.
Life as the director of a Muslim funeral parlour isn’t always easy, but Ayesha has things pretty sorted. She and Zeyd share everything: a marriage, a business, a future. Until Tom walks in to organise his boyfriend’s funeral. A snap moral decision, informed by the values of Ayesha’s community and faith, has profound consequences. Forced to confront a secret she has hidden even from herself, Ayesha must decide who she is – no matter the cost. Brilliant actress Aryana Ramkhalawon returns to play Ayesha giving a riveting and taut performance in this well-written show which tackles difficult issues with care and humanity. These four cities are fortunate to welcome this special play; do please go if you can.
Stephen Sondheim’s lovingly-crafted, bittersweet musical FOLLIES returns to the National Theatre after a sold-out run last year (and winning Best Musical Revival at the Olivier Awards). On the eve of demolition of Weissman’s Theatre, past performers gather to drink, dream and reminisce….and somehow, try to make sense of it all. New cast members this season are all top-notch: Joanna Riding (The Pajama Game, Flowers for Mrs Harris), Alexander Hanson (A Little Night Music) and Claire Moore (Phantom of the Opera). Returning cast include the phenomenal Tracie Bennett, assured Janie Dee and (from mid-April) the spine-tingling operatic septugenarian Josephine Barstow, with perfectly-drilled choreography once again courtesy of Olivier-Award-winning Bill Deamer. In an ongoing repertory season to May 11th.
NT Live Broadcasts
I’m Not Running, David Hare’s gripping political drama,encores on various dates around the UK, with a large cluster around Tuesday March 5th. Check your local arts centre/ cinemas for details or go to the ntlive website
Off-West End shows closing
Until 16 March at the Lyric Hammersmith. Wherever company 1927 appear, you can expect dazzling visual artistry and inspired invention, something akin to a graphic novel burst into theatrical life. Their most recent show, Golem, has now been touring the world for the last four years and has delighted audiences in astonishment at their technical and artistic imagination. Now there is another chance to see 1927’s previous show entitled THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS! In the Bayou, a part of the city feared and loathed, stands infamous Bayou Mansions; a sprawling stinking tenement block, where curtain-twitchers and peeping-toms live side by side… and the wolf is always at the door. When Agnes Eaves and her daughter arrive late one night, does it signal hope in this hopeless place, or has the real horror only just begun? Seamlessly synchronising live music, intricate performance and storytelling with stunning film and animation, this is a show to savour.
Until 16 March at the Park Theatre, Robert Fox and Alex Turner present Martin (BENT) Sherman’s acclaimed new play GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM, to celebrate his 80th year, with a cast that includes Jonathan Hyde (The King’s Speech) and directed by Sean Mathias. Concerning an unexpected age gap relationship, the play explores the differences between generations of gay men and their life experiences and asks whether generation gap affairs can sustain.
West End shows Opening
The Twilight Zone – Return of the hit show from the Almeida. Ambassadors Theatre from 4 March
Betrayal – Tom Hiddleston stars. Harold Pinter Theatre from 5 March
A Hundred Words For Snow – An intriguing-sounding coming of age story. With Polar Bears. Trafalgar Studios 2 from 5 March
Emilia! – Transfer of the Globe’s celebration of women’s voices across generations. Vaudeville Theatre from 8 March
Fiddler On The Roof – Transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s well-reviewed musical revival sets up at the Playhouse Theatre from 21 March
London shows closing
Closing March 9th – Adrian Lester in Pulitzer winning Cost of Livingat Hampstead Theatre
‘Tartuffe put in a blender to lumpy effect'(my review in a nutshell), Keith? at Arcola Theatre
Closing March 16th– Trevor Nunn-directed rediscovery of an unperformed Harley Granville-Barker play from 1913 about a female artist , Agnes Colander, at Jermyn Street Theatre
Closing March 23rd– The Trick, a show fusing magic and grief directed by Roy Alexander Wiese at the Bush Theatre