not a book, theatre

Not a Book: Post Covid theatre

Writing about Noises Off last week got me thinking about the post-Covid theatre scene and what’s been going on for the last couple of years. I was a big theatre goer before the pandemic and it was one of the things I missed the most, so I was straight back in as soon as I could and I’ve been trying to see as much as I can, but there are definitely some changes – beyond the fact that I changed jobs during the pandemic and work shifts less now which has changed things a bit for me personally.

When the West End first started to reopen, it was mostly just the long runners but it is starting to perk up again now with new stuff coming in – even if it’s revivals or return engagements. I’ve revisited a few of my old favourites, but it’s been quite hard to get good ticket deals, because there weren’t as many shows going – which I’m hoping is because they’ve got lots of demand rather than the fact that the prices are so high now they can afford to not sell as many tickets. Because the prices have gone up, and my ticket budget hasn’t gone up by the same amount.

I saw Sylvia at the Old Vic the other week, which had a run as a work in progress there in 2018 but is now back as a full production – which I think shows you the effect on the time line of shows that the pandemic has had. New musicals often take a couple of years to make it to the West End (if they make it to the West End) because there is a process of workshopping and looking for backers that takes place as well as potentially trying it out out of town. And because everything has been closed, that hasn’t been going on at all. Hopefully we’ll start to get some properly new stuff soon – maybe some of the stuff that was workshopping when everything shut down in 2020 will make it’s way through. So far there have been plenty of plays (particularly plays with small casts) but not so many musicals. The good news is that transfer of the Tony winning Oklahoma revival started its West End transfer this week – after a Young Vic run last year. And it’s definitely encouraging that that Chichester Festival Theatre has announced a full programme for this year this week, including new plays, old plays and a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, which is one of his shows that I haven’t seen so I’m seriously hoping that it is good and gets a London transfer.

Outside the West End though it is still a little slow. I used to see a fair bit of cabaret and comedy in the off-West End scene, and that really hasn’t come back much yet. Whether it’s the fact that the margins are too small, or the venues have closed or even that there aren’t as many people around in London I don’t know, but it’s been a struggle to find stuff that I want to go to so far.

Regional theatre is running on a slower time table too. We used to see quite a bit at our local theatres, but most of what has been coming through so far has been touring productions of shows that we’ve already seen – either in the West end or on previous tours. Northampton’s Royal and Derngate used to be a reasonably big regional production house, but that hasn’t properly come back into gear yet, and the artistic director has announced that he’s leaving this spring, so that may also have put a crimp on things. Fingers crossed that the new artistic director brings as many good productions as the last few have and we’ll see some new shows in Northampton that eventually make their way into the West End or national tours the way they used to.

But there definitely seems to be light at the end of the tunnel at last – and if some more tourists come back to London, maybe we’ll be back to what used to be normal by the end of the summer.

not a book, theatre

Not a Book: Noises Off

Happy Super Bowl Sunday everyone. Its not an NFL themed post today – but if you want some American football action, may I point you at last year’s post. Instead I am back at the theatre where I’ve had a good week – in the space of seven days I’ve seen Sylvia, the new musical about Sylvia Pankhurst and Noises Off, Michael Frayne’s classic comedy about a touring production of a farce. I’m writing w the latter because I love a book within a book and this is a play with in a play. And it made me laugh until my sides ached.

Noises Off follows a theatre company as they put on a production of a sex farce called Nothing On. Each of the three acts is the same act of the play – starting with the disastrous final rehearsal, then the backstage view several weeks into the tour and finally the last night of the tour from the front. I don’t know what else to say without ruining it. Tempers fray? Personal relationships… sour? Anyway as the play goes on you see the show descend into chaos as the actors’ personality quirks and flaws slowly but undermine the show.

The play has just turned forty and you don’t really get sex farces any more, so on that front it is a bit dated, but I think it still works, especially as Frayn apparently has been lightly revising it over the years. I saw it a decade ago at the Old Vic and I think it was just as funny this time around. We went for my mum’s birthday (happy birthday Jo!) and she thinks she’s seen it about every ten years since it was new – and thinks this one is the best she’s seen. And I can vouch for the fact that she laughed until she cried! I think the second act is my favourite, because I love the backstage view, as you hear the action out front while the actors frantically mime out their issues behind the scenes. Although the final pay off is just genius and build on everything that you’ve seen all evening.

It’s not cutting edge or avant garde, but it is very funny and sometimes the old ones are the best ones aren’t they? And it’s got lashings of slapstick humour as the cast hurl themselves around trying to keep the show going in increasingly difficult circumstances. Just brilliant.

Happy Sunday everyone.


Not a Book: Best of Enemies

Getting this in quickly before the barrage of Christmas posts as I went to see this the other week when it was in late preview stages and it’s now open and has been reviewed.

Best of Enemies is a new play by James Graham about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jnr at the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1968. The two men represented the new left and the new right respectively and hated what each other stood for. In real life, they remained enemies for the rest of their lives – with lawsuits and counter suits – extending even beyond Buckley’s death when Vidal was still happy to insult him. The play uses transcripts of the dialogue from the TV debate for those sections and imagines what was going on behind the scenes.

In the play Buckley is David Harewood and Vidal is Zachary Quinto. Casting a black actor as the white Buckley does highlight the times when Buckley is talking about race – but that’s not the main focus of the clashes between the men shown in the play. Quinto is excellent as Vidal – arch and snarky and supremely confident in his own abilities and beliefs. The staging – as you can see from the photo has TV like windows – that can show you the control room behind or be used as TV screens to project the actors during the debates, or the sections of rival newscasters talking you through the events of the day.

The play is making the argument that the debates are the start of the commentator-led, TV politics that has turned into the polarisation you see on social media – and while that may sound like a bit of a reach, the debate sections of the play feel very timely – almost spookily so at times. I thought it was really, really good – and if you’re in London before the 18th of February and fancy a show, this would be a good pick.

not a book, theatre

Not a Book: Jack Absolute Flies Again!

Back in the theatre with this Sunday’s post because I had a wonderful night out on Monday night at the National Theatre. In fact it’s one of three trips to the theatre this week, which might be a record even for me!

So Jack Absolute Flies again is the new play by Richard Bean – who was behind the smash hit One Man, Two Guv’nors – and Oliver Chris. Like One Man… it’s based on another classic play, in this case Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, written in 1775. They’ve moved the action to 1940, and our sets of not so star crossed lovers are now taking part in the Battle of Britain.

If you haven’t seen the Rivals, it’s the story of Lydia Languish, a teenage heiress and Jack Absolute. It’s all very complicated with disguises but basically Lydia and Jack are in love but she wants a big romance and when Jack’s father arranges a marriage between Jack and Lydia she rejects it. Cue much tooling and groping. Or at least that’s what I think happens…

Funny story: I’ve technically seen The Rivals, but when we went to see it at the Southwark Playhouse more than a decade ago, it was an evening production on a Saturday night, after I’d worked a early shift at the radio station (and at the end of a six day week of earlies). No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay away (and I had a nap in the interval in the hole it would improve things) and neither could Him Indoors. I’m still cross about it because it was a really cool venue and an excellent cast – including Celia Imrie – and I wish I’d managed to stay away. But it was in fact a legendary night in our relationship – where we both fell asleep on the train home and missed our stop and ended up three stops down the line, at the wrong end of Southend, three miles from home and not a cab in sight. And this was the pre-Uber era…

Anyway, back to Jack Absolute. It’s rather freely adapted, but there are still competing suitors for Lydia – this time from among the pilots – and it’s all a lot of fun, but with an undercurrent of peril behind it. And even if you haven’t heard of The Rivals, you’ve probably heard of one of its characters – Mrs Malaprop, who constantly uses words that sound like the one she means but… aren’t. Bean and Chris use this to maximum effect – often getting really quite saucy. The age recommendation is 12 plus – and I would endorse than unless you want to be trying to explain things you’d maybe rather not! Caroline Quentin is very good as the mangler of the English language – and does a good job of trying to steal every scene that she’s in.

Genuinely this was a funny and thought provoking evening and a clever update to the original which has gone it’s own way at times to add some interest and depth to some of the supporting characters. There’s a lot of fourth wall breaking which really worked for me and the projections for the flying scenes were very good too. I hope that this does really well – it was a bit empty around the top when I saw it on Monday, but tickets are very reasonably priced and it was very well worth the £20 I spent!

Jack Absolute Flies Again is at the National Theatre until September 3, and is coming to NT Live in cinemas in the autumn.

not a book, theatre

Not a Book: Ben De La Creme

We interrupt our scheduled programming for a rare midweek Not a Book post – because what’s the point of a review of a show if the show is already over…

Ben De La Crème’s new one woman show is called Ready to be Committed and it follows my favourite drag Queen as she tries to get married so she doesn’t end up alone and eaten by cats. The only problem, is well, everything – starting with the fact that she doesn’t have a groom. Over the course of the show De La goes on to breakdown marriage and the patriarchy in a style that she describes at the start as “take the smart but make it stupid”. She sings, she raps, she dances and she plays *all* the characters – including wedding cake toppers and a sentient Dorito.

And it’s very funny. De La’s character is a twist on a 50s-y ingenue and that makes her search for a husband (on Grindr) cringingly brilliant. It’s also very clever – think adult drag Queen Horrible Histories and you get a bit of a sense of some of it. And De La knows what she’s doing – most of the audience, like me were there because they had seen her on Drag Race rather than because they’d seen her live before (I know because she checked!) and she swept us all up in the personality that you knew from the show, but demonstrated that she has more range and versatility than you expected. And if you saw her on All Stars you already knew she was good.

This has been in my diary for two years – I originally bought a ticket to see this in February 2020 and it was one of the first casualties of the pandemic in my ticket box. I had the option to rearrange my ticket in to her Christmas show with Jinx Monsoon, but I hung on for Ready to be Committed and I’m so glad I did. Tuesday night when I went was the first night and it wasn’t full, so if you like the sound of it from the review you might be able to get a ticket, although I’m hoping for De La’s sake that it’s all sold out now! Run don’t walk!

Ben De La Creme is at the Leicester Square Theatre until Saturday, in Brighton on Sunday and then Manchester on Tuesday. Then she goes back to the US where the tour continues…