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: 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…

not a book

Not a Book: Wicked!

This is a not a Book post because I have never managed to get to the end of Gregory Maguire’s book that Wicked is based on. And it’s not through lack of effort – I’ve tried several times, over a period of years!

Anyway, last weekend we went to see Wicked, which was my third trip to the show. I remain convinced that it’s one of the best of the family musicals for older children, and the reaction of my nieces confirmed that. While Matilda works for anyone old enough to sit through a musical, Wicked works for nines and up who have seen the Wizard of Oz, especially if they’re girls. And there’s always something special about sharing a show that means a lot to you with other people. The nerves while you’re hoping that they’ll like it. The relief when they do – and the excitement that you have someone to talk to about a thing you like – it’s like lending a book except that you get to experience it again at the same time. Bonus.

My earliest internet community was based around musicals and so back in the day I was waiting for this to arrive from the US – and went in a group to one of the previews – complete with Idina Menzell (way before everyone knew her from Frozen, I was in there ahead of the crowd). I already knew a lot of the music but I hadn’t read any spoilers and it really blew me away. I remember saying at the time that the level of spectacle was the mid 2000s equivalent of Phantom of the Opera. And 15 years on it still works on me. I always forget bits of the detail – despite the fact that the CD still lives in my car glove box*, and when I did car commuting I sang along to it all the time and I still now all the words. Him Indoors is not a musicals person generally, so it’s always a risk taking him to stuff, but even he conceeded that Wicked is clever – even if he said it didn’t need the songs!

Anyway, as I’ve said before, having to stop doing everything in the pandemic really crystalised what is important to me and what I missed (and what I didn’t ) and so now things are opened up more and the theatre companies are putting stuff on again, it’s a delight to be able to go back and do things again. In fact, this trip should actually have happened before Christmas, but was postponed because of a positive covid test in part of the family. I’m working on refilling my theatre ticket box – so undoubtedly you’ll be hearing more about my outings.

Have a good Sunday and please try not to doomscroll.

* current car glove box CDs: Rufus Wainwright Vibrate, Wicked Original Broadway Cast, Martha Wainwright’s Piaf Record, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings Give People What They Want, Caravan Palace Caravan Palace. It’s a small glovebox.

children's books, not a book

Not a Book: Matilda the Musical

Another post from my trip to London the other week. As well as the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition and a wander around the national gallery, we went to see Matilda, the musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name.

So I want to say that this isn’t the first time that I’d seen Matilda – I actually saw it in its original incarnation at the RSC in Stratford a decade ago, but it was the first time I’ve seen it in the West End. I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my memories of it – especially as I’ve got the CD (yes I know, it’s that long ago) and have sung along to it in the car a lot, but actually it really did. There are a few bits of staging that have definitely changed since that Christmas run, but that’s probably not a surprise given that the stage at Stratford was much more of a thrust stage than the Cambridge theatre is. We bought our tickets on the day (from the theatre) and were sat in the middle of the Dress Circle, which was really good value and a really good view. There is some running around in the aisles in the stalls that you can’t see, but for me it wasn’t worth paying an extra £50+ for.

In terms of the book vs the show, Matilda’s own story is fairly similar, but there’s a secondary plot strand added to tie in (that really works, don’t worry!) and you see less of the telekinises than you get in the book – but given that you have to try and make that work on stage, it’s not a surprise. I’ve always thought that picking Tim Minchen to do the music was inspired – he’s funny and clever and a little bit dark and sly. And like the book it’s funny but funny and suitable for children – there aren’t any jokes here that parents are going to get awkward questions about. And I know it’s a children’s show so you’d think that there wouldn’t be, but actually you’d be surprised!

Anyway, we had a blast, five out of five, would recommend, just maybe don’t go on a Saturday (or in the school holidays) if chatting children during the show are going to annoy you!


Sir Antony Sher

It’s been a busy week of posts here on the blog, and I wasn’t planning to post anything today, but then the news came through that Sir Antony Sher had died. This blog is about books and writing, but please bear with me for this crossover with one of my other passions. Some of you probably know that I love going to the theatre. Going to see a show was one of the things I missed the most during the pandemic.

I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing performances on stage through the years – some of them from names you’ll recognise from films and TV – like Mark Rylance, Judi Dench and Angela Lansbury – some of them more known to the theatre world. Antony Sher is one of the latter. When it was announced that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness earlier this year, I was surprised that Him Indoors didn’t recognise his name (or his picture), until I checked back through his IMDB page and realised that most of his credits were for filmed versions of plays. I only saw him on stage once – playing Macbeth at the Swan in about 2000 – but it was amazing. I had been studying Macbeth at school and had struggled (as most school children do I think) with the Shakespearean language. But there was Antony Sher (and Harriet Walter) on stage making it all seem understandable and easy in a way that it wasn’t on the page. I hadn’t seen a lot of live Shakespeare at that point, but I had seen enough to know that it didn’t always work like that.

As Sher worked principally for the RSC in recent years – where his husband is artistic director – and a trip to Stratford always seems like a special effort, and the RSC in London can be quite expensive and hard to get (especially when the reviews were good), that’s my only experience of seeing him live on stage. So why am I writing about him on a book blog? Well it’s because that Macbeth really was very, very good but also because of the books he wrote about his acting.

Although I love going to the theatre, I have never wanted to be on stage myself. The closest I have got since primary school plays was playing in the band for the school musical. The process of creating a performance was a bit of a mystery to me. And that’s where Antony Sher’s Year of the Fat Knight came into my life. I liked it so much I bought his other books about creating great Shakespearean roles and they were equally brilliant. It really gave me a sense of the work and the research that goes into building a performance and creating a character – and probably made me a more critical and analytical theatre goer. Wonderful writing, wonderful acting. And an interesting life, well lived. I’m sorry that there will be no more performances to watch or books to read about them.

Book of the Week, memoirs, reviews

Book of the Week: Year of the Fat Knight

My final BotW of 2019 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.

Year of the Fat Knight on a bookshelf

Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.

The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner (now husband) no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s husband is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.

I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd.  I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation.  If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you.  But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this.  I’m sure you’d get something out of it.

I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section.  Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct.  They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it.  I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!