A first trip to the former Clapham Public Library, which has been causing a stir as the Omnibus Theatre for the past few years.
I was sad to pass on an invitation to review the recent Lipstick, but this combination of politics, light comedy and affectionate imitation tempted me south of the river to buy a ticket.
Tony’s Last Tape was first performed in 2015, shortly after the death of Labour veteran Tony Benn and hot on the heels of Skip Kite’s documentary Tony Benn: Will and Testament.
In this stage play, written by Andy Barrett and directed by Giles Croft, actor Philip Bretherton inhabits the persona of Benn at the end of his long life – still the democratic socialist firebrand, but also an elderly man with shaking hands and dodgy legs.
It’s an affectionate portrait and depiction of a man who may have polarised opinion, but left nobody neutral. A leader-in-waiting destined to become a sidelined backbencher and a thorn in the side of PM Tony Blair, who represented everything the Bennite philosophy was not.
Bretherton’s Benn is found late at night, unable to sleep, shuffling around in his dressing-gown and ‘say no to the Poll Tax’ t-shirt. Smoking his pipe, eating bananas, rifling through his published diaries to remember words he has already said, he is documenting his last days on the fringes of politics.
The room is cluttered with a lifetime dedicated to social change – desk with books, tape machine, dictaphones; filing cabinet with letters (‘dear arsehole …”, and news clippings); chair; gadgets. Rachael Jacks and Martin Curtis have created and lighted a space which feels right for this ageing left-winger to exist in.
In between the flashes of bombast and anger at the likes of Thatcher and Kinnock, this Benn has real regrets about his shortcomings as husband and father, and about his thwarted ambition – and in one powerful sequence there’s a flash of pride in the old man to see he’s on a banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala.
For Barrett to evoke such a complex character (the play is a hybrid of his own words, and Benn’s) when this politician is so clear in recent memory is quite a feat. When we can laugh at the squeaky toy megaphone Benn has purchased from Oxfam for his granddaughter, and then later feel moved by his recollection of dropping off his late wife’s clothes (‘bring them back … bring her back’), that’s clever work on everyone’s part.
Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gets a brief mention too, as Benn’s comrade-in-crime putting up unofficial plaques across Parliament. Tony Benn did not live to see his friend’s success but I suspect he would have been both delighted to see the return of Democratic Socialism, and amused to reflect on the media’s response to it.
He was nothing if not pragmatic, this man, who renounced the peerage he inherited (the second son, the heir died in wartime, and the younger Benn replaced his own RAF wings with his) so he could serve the people as an MP.
Philip Bretherton has clearly grown into the role and evokes memories of the veteran statesman (and oddly enough at times, Benn’s cousin the comedy actress Margaret Rutherford) without settling into caricature. It is an enjoyable and accomplished performance (and very different from his smarmy TV roles such as the literary agent in As Time Goes By).
Tony’s Last Tape continues until the 20 April at the Omnibus, which is a short walk from Clapham Common station.
Welcome to the second instalment of The Mix, in which I’ll look at some of the things in London theatre which have caught my eye.
A is for Admissions
Alex Kingston stars in Joshua Harmon’s new comedy at the Trafalgar Studios, where it runs until 25 May, after which it has a run at Richmond Theatre until 1 Jun.
Described as a “bold new comedy” this both takes a knock at the status quo and, timely enough, reflects some of the corruption going on overseas over fixed university and school places. I will be reporting back from this show soon. For information see https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/admissions/
B is for Bunker and Boulevard
The Bunker Theatre was converted from an underground car park into an ambitious, artist-led space with two resident companies, Damsel Productions and Pint-Sized. Now in its third season, The Bunker presents an interesting mix of productions in an eclectic space underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory. I’ll be visiting to see Funeral Flowers later in the year.
The Boulevard Theatre has been announced as Soho’s newest playhouse, due to open in autumn 2019. Built on the site of the legendary Raymond’s Revuebar, this vibrant arts venue will host theatre, comedy, cabaret, music, film and literature with a seated capacity of 165.
C is for the Canal Cafe
The Canal Cafe Theatre celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Based on the edge of the Regent’s Canal, above the Bridge House Pub, the 60 seat theatre (arranged as table seating) presents comedy and drama, and helped to launch acts such as Miranda Hart and the League of Gentlemen. It is the home of the NewsRevue, the world’s longest running comedy show.
Mobile phones, takeaways, sing-alongs, photography, heckling, late comers, drunk audience members, coughing, noisy sweet wrappers, putting drinks or bags or yourself on the stage, you name it. It’s a tough old world out there and theatre is a nice escape for many of us, so if you’re guilty of any of the items in the list: just stop!
A few things you may want to bear in mind if you want to be a model audience member – put your phone away (switched off) during the performance, keep your singing in your own head, don’t snap pics, don’t interrupt or talk, don’t stagger in late, don’t stagger in drunk, suck a cough sweet and sip on a bottle of water (or if you’re coughing badly, stay at home in bed), bring loose sweets only, respect the performers’ space even if it is just literally that rather than a conventional stage.
Simple, isn’t it?
F is for Frozen
If you’d been on the Theatre Royal Drury Lane backstage tours last year just before the theatre closed for renevation, you will have known that Frozen was set to be the first new show on re-opening in autumn 2020, but it is now official, and you can sign up for information and pre-sale of tickets. No news yet on whether any of the Broadway cast will transfer with the show but you can read the rave review of the New York production at https://www.newyorktheatreguide.com/reviews/review-of-disneys-frozen-on-broadway
The film of Frozen is the highest grossing animated film of all time, and the stage production, directed by Michael Grandage, has already won a Tony Award nomination for best new musical. The Drury Lane production will feature set and costume design by Christoper Oram, lighting design by Natasha Katz, choreography by Rob Ashford.
G is for Groan Ups
Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) have announced their new show, set to open at the Vaudeville Theatre in September 2019. Groan Ups is a brand-new comedy about growing-up, asking whether we are really that different at 30 than at 13, this is being pitched as “a lesson not to be skipped”.
The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester is proving to be a rich source of musicals transferring into the capital, with Pippin, Aspects of Love, Yank, and Hair.
Based in Ancoats, the company is a joint venture for creative couple William Wheldon and Joseph Houston, and producer Katy Lipson. Together they are Hope Aria and their current musical project is Rags.
Over at the Hope Theatre in Islington, a new production is underway. Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story centres on the murder popularised in the Hitchcock film Rope, this time made into a musical by Stephen Dolginoff. The show runs from 2-20 April. More information at http://www.thehopetheatre.com/
I is for the Iris Theatre
The Iris Theatre is one of London’s award winning theatre companies, performing each summer in the grounds of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (known as the ‘Actors Church’).
This year’s summer season runs from 19 June-1 Sept and comprises Hamlet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If the classics don’t appeal, try a ticket for a new musical Parenthood runs on the 3 May or Cleopatra runs on the 11 May.
Approaching its 30th anniversary in a former Barclays Bank branch in Camden, this ecletic nightspot offers a wide range of music and dance events. For listings and information visit https://thejazzcafelondon.com/
K is for Katzpace
Katzpace is a new 50 seat theatre based at London Bridge, under the German Bierkeller. Billed as “London’s coolest theatre” it showcases theatre and comedy with an edgy and intelligent feel, hosting scratch nights, queer theatre, improv and more.
At the start of April it becomes on of the venues for the 2019 London Pub Theatre Festival. Its resident theatre company, Exploding Whale Theatre, is made up of recent graduates. Keep an eye on the venue and its work at https://www.katzpace.co.uk/whats-on
L is for LIVR
LIVR merges live performance, streaming and virtual reality to provide access to theatrical experiences via a mobile phone and a headset. It is the first VR platform dedicated to theatre, to offer “the best seat in the house without leaving the house”.
With a monthly subscription and a growing library of content, this may revolutionise how we access our theatre spaces and productions. I hope to offer a full feature on how this works later in the year.
Over at the Finborough Theatre, musical Maggie May is enjoying a revival in its first London production in half a century. Lionel Bart’s show is a hard-hitting celebration of working-class life on Merseyside and runs to the 20 April. It also commemerates the 20th anniversary of Bart’s death.
The National has announced its new season and it is entirely made up of male playwrights, which is a little disappointing. However, I will be attending to see Hansard, featuring Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, and I am intrigued by their new musical show for children and the young at heart, Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park is often a martyr to the English weather, but unfailingly presents a summer season to shout about. This year the American perennial Our Town goes shoulder to shoulder with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while musical and opera fans are served by revivals of Evita and the ENO’s Hansel and Gretel.
London is chock-full of pub theatres, intimate and exciting spaces which generate new work and give a sideways slant on old favourites. They often have left-field or evocative names – The Hen and Chickens, Etcetera, Tabard, Katzpace, Bread and Roses. They may be small, but they are an essential part of London’s theatreland.
London’s theatreland is a safe and energising space for LGBTQ+ shows, with venues such as Above the Stag, the King’s Head, Soho Theatre, Hackney Showroom, Arcola Theatre, Park Theatre, The Glory, The Yard, Camden People’s Theatre, and more showcasing new writing, queer seasons, or even entire programming with the rainbow flag prominently in focus, the metropolis can certainly hold its head up with pride.
R is for the Rose
The Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames celebrated its tenth birthday last year and shows no signs of slowing down. As well as some excellent upcoming shows including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Snow Queen, the theatre now has an Emerging Artists Fellowship in honour of its founder, Sir Peter Hall.
There is also a second Rose in London, the Rose Playhouse on Bankside. Billed as “Bankside’s first Tudor theatre”, this was the site of the Save The Rose campaign in 1989, and what has since been uncovered enjoys English Heritage Scheduled Monument status. Events taken place regularly, and there is a 30th anniversary gala planned in May. The Rose is still in desperate need of support – visit http://www.roseplayhouse.org.uk/experience/events/ to find out more.
S is for Shapeshifting
If you move quickly and get across to the Barbican Centre you can catch Cillian Murphy’s astonishingly physical and visceral performance as the Crow in Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which runs until 13 April. It’s sold out, but returns might be available on the day.
T is for Tributes
Over in Clapham rehearsals are underway for Tony’s Last Tape, a transfer from Nottingham in which Philip Bretherton plays Tony Benn, at the Omnibus Theatre. Presented by Excavate, this is based on the diaries of one of Britain’s seminal and most divisive politicians, and is accompanied by an exhibition – Tracey Moberley’s audio diaries of Tony Benn.
It’s British Summer Time so it must be time for return of the Underbelly Festival at the South Bank. Running from 5 April-29 September 2019, you can enjoy family-focused shows, comedy, cabaret, and the circus across 31 seperate shows. Now in its 11th year, there is also a large outdoor bar, street food, and a truly festival atmosphere with shows which are short (less than an hour), cheap (less than £20), and cheerful.
V is for Violet and Vincent River
Two shows to highlight this month.
At the Charing Cross, Jeanine Tesori’s musical Violet continues until the 6 April. This award-winning tearjerker set on a greyhound bus and its environs benefits from an excellent set and some very good performances.
Meanwhile, over at the Trafalgar Studios 2, Vincent River is a one-act play focusing on hate crime in Dagenham. It previously ran at the Hampstead Theatre in 200, and in the West End in 2007. It plays from the 16 May-22 June.
W is for Wembley and White City
New theatres are always worth celebration, and the first of two promised Troubadour Theatres opens in June, at Wembley Park, on the site of the former Fountain Studios. The inaugural productions are Dinosaur World Live and a stop-off for the tour of War Horse. The second Troubadour is due to open in White City, on former BBC Media Village land, later in the year, with two flexible spaces of 1,200 and 800 seats respectively. For more information see https://www.troubadourtheatres.com/
X is for King’s Cross (X)
In the vicinity of King’s Cross Station are a variety of fine performance spaces.
The Shaw Theatre is situated next to the British Library and has a programme of dance, musical theatre, drama and talks. They have recently made their My Fair Lady rehearsal space available for hire.
The Platform Theatre on Handyside St is part of Central St Martins at the University of the Arts and comprises four performance spaces and a bar.
King’s Place on York Way is described as ‘a hub for music, art, dialogue and food’.
Y is for the Yard
The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick aims to make “theatre about our world, today”. Around the corner from Hackney Wick Station in Queen’s Yard, this fully accessible space also boasts a bar and kitchen. Their current production, running to the 11 May, is a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which for the first time has a female actor playing John Proctor. I’ll be reporting back from this show in April – for information and booking go to https://theyardtheatre.co.uk/theatre/events/the-crucible/
Z is for Z Hotels
Finally, if all the excitement leads you to want a place to lay your weary head, try the compact rooms of one of London’s Z hotels. With eight to choose from across the capital, and two more coming soon, this could be an affordable option for those of you travelling for your theatre fix.