I understand that star ratings can make or break a show. They make good visual copy for a poster or a draw on social media.
They even make critics and bloggers more visible because the more four and five star ratings they give, the more publicity they get. Shows don’t tend to quote without little icons on their publicity.
And yet, I can’t bring myself to use that five star scale.
What is a star rating, anyway?
The star rating is supposed to be a mark of quality: a 1 is not worth your time, and a 5 means you must sell all your worldly goods for a ticket (often not that far from the truth).
Worryingly, three stars or below seems to constitute failure. Every show must be brilliant, fabulous, magnificent, remarkable. It’s just not possible.
Recently, I’ve been adding short reviews to the Stagedoor app to try it out, and there you have to add a star rating. Four and above and you are recommending a show: for me that causes a problem, because I might like a show but don’t see it as very good (****) or exceptional (*****).
There are plenty of solid, enjoyable shows out there which do not really deserve those top star ratings. They are not bad, either. They are the average, three star shows which I don’t feel particularly strongly about; and there will always be lots of them.
But we are not all the same!
It is also difficult to rate one show’s worth against another: the big budget musical, the difficult new WE play, the fringe revival, the experimental work watched by one man and his dog. If I gave something from each of these categories the same star rating, I am not saying they are the same thing.
Chalk and cheese, apples and oranges, a 2,000 seater and a budget of millions against a 40 seater and a budget of tuppence. To me, theatre is theatre. It is about celebration, informed and honest opinion, constructive criticism, and not about a show’s chart position.
If I rave about a show (a silent four- or five-star verdict), I’ll say why I genuinely love it. But mine is just one opinion of many.
Who are these ratings for?
To be honest, I’ve seen lazy reviews that say nothing of interest but have a big fat star rating at the end.
I want to know what a show has to offer me and what the cast, creatives and crew have conjured up together to bring their work to the stage. That’s far more valuable than just saying “this is the best thing since …”.
I do glance at star ratings, and they often surprise me.
But I don’t take them as the gospel truth: even a poor show has something to recommend it or can have something highlighted from kindness to make the failure not quite so acute.
Those one-star ratings can be unnecessarily crushing, just as full marks can make a company complacent.
And then there’s creative marketing, like this two-star Guardian review for a film made to look that little bit different.
The star rating and me
Star ratings should not be the only way to assess and promote theatre quality. In fact, they can be quite decisive and problematic at times. I note that the lack of higher star ratings for some shows caused issues at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
You won’t see star ratings here on LouReviews.
Nor will you see favourable reviews in lieu of press tickets – unless I really do love the show, that is, and then you’ll hear all about it.
If I don’t fall in love with a show, you’ll know, and I will always try to explain why.
I might hint at a show’s worth, but you can fill in the gaps. And that’s a lot more fun as a consumer … isn’t it?
By the end of June, I had been seriously reviewing shows across London theatre for six months. I have already reflected on the process of the transition from being a theatre blogger as a hobby to being a professional theatre blogger in Six Months Later, but this post will look at the productions I attended between April and June of 2019.
You can find me across social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and on blogging platforms Bloglovin’ and Mix. I have started adding short reviews to Stagedoor with a view to doing an article on how it works as a theatre suggestion platform at a later date.
I now work with a number of PR companies to access a wide range of London theatre shows; and I am always open to smaller company/performer requests to review shows as well which may not have wider representation. My thanks go to everyone who has been in touch so far in 2019 and allowed me to view and comment on their work.
So let’s take a look at my theatre-going in the second quarter of 2019!
Show count: 9 | Plays: 5 | Musicals: 3 | Other: 1 | Venues: 9 (new venues: 3)
My month started with two press invites, both to theatres I had not visited before.
Bed Peace: the Battle of Yohn and Joko took place at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, and focused on the 50th anniversary of the “bed-in for peace” stunt set up by musician John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono. The theatre is in the round, although part of the audience seating was used for staging in this production. A strong performance by Jung Sun den Hollander as Yoko was not enough to pull this show together, and I found it ultimately unsatisfying.
Much better was Kieran Hurley’s taut play Mouthpiece, which ran at the Soho Theatre, a three space venue buzzing with energy. It probably wouldn’t have been on my radar, but I found the script fascinating, hard-hitting and earthy, and Lorn Macdonald’s performance as Declan was one of the best I have seen this year. The play continues to gather attention and awards, and rightly so.
The second of five Arthur Miller plays to hit London this year was The Price – and although Brendan Coyle was indisposed on the day I saw the show, I admired the interplay between understudy Sion Lloyd as Victor and David Suchet as furniture dealer Solomon, even from way up in the Wyndham’s balcony.
Another new theatre to me was the Omnibus in Clapham, a former library building where I saw Philip Bretherton’s astonishing portrayal of politician Tony Benn in Tony’s Last Tape, a role he has now been playing for a number of years. It’s an excellent snippet of a man who often polarised opinion but always retained his single-mindedness. The Omnibus itself is small, but comfortable, and the bar boasts a resident cat.
April also gave me the opportunity to catch up with a show I had heard a lot about, but never seen: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I found it very inventive, strangely involving, and delightfully played. It is a show which definitely lives up to its reputation.
Over at the National, Tartuffe was reasonably OK, but I found the ending a little strange, and the character and plot did not really sit with 21st century concerns and technology. Denis O’Hare’s stateless manipulator, Kevin Doyle’s befuddled father, and Olivia Williams’s stoic mother, were all very good, and I enjoyed the farce of the second half.
Finally, a staged performance of Gilvert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury (with John Wilson conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment), an invitation to the concert version of the musical Broken Wings, and a trip back to the 70s at Wembley for Legends Live rounded off the month.
Show count: 17 | Plays: 8 | Musicals: 7 | Other: 2 | Venues: 15 (new venues: 7)
May began with a repeat visit to the musical revival of The King and I, this time on tour in Manchester with a change of cast. Still a sumptuous show and interesting to compare Jose Llana’s with that of Ken Watanabe last year in London.
Seven new venues this month saw me visit the Arcola, the Bunker, Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Peacock, Trafalgar Studios, The Yard, and Above the Stag (last visited eight years ago in its Victoria home.
In terms of musicals in the capital, I went to see the London Coliseum’s Man of La Mancha. It was overpriced, but I enjoyed the performances of Kelsey Grammer (last seen in Big Fish), Cassidy Janson (so marvellous as Carole King in Beautiful), and Nicholas Lyndhurst, and felt the lukewarm reviews were a little unkind.
The revival of Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola in Dalston was a lot of fun, notably the performances of Gary Wilmot as Granpa and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Mum. It benefitted from excellent use of the Arcola’s larger space, including a partially revolving stage.
An invitation to review at Above the Stag brought me to the vaudeville fun of Victorian cross-dressers in Fanny and Stella, which boasted an excellent and close-knit cast. Bawdy and tawdry, this was stirring stuff and the songs were excellent.
I caught up with Book of Mormon, having secured a discounted ticket, and I found it hilarious, filthy, and very entertaining. If yiu go with your mind open, the score is fabulous and you will leave the theatre smiling. I think this was a big surprise of the year for me as I really wasn’t sure I would like it.
Finally, my local theatre in Ealing hosted an amateur production of Bill Russell’s Side Show, in which GLOC’s talented company brought the magic of the circus to us in the story of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Plays in May included good revivals of Top Girls and Rutherford and Son (both at the National Theatre), the excellent one-woman show Funeral Flowers from Emma Dennis-Edwards at the Bunker (housed in a former underground car park next to the Menier), and a remarkable revival at Hackney Wick’s The Yard of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with a woman playing John Proctor.
Over in Stratford, Lenny Henry and Martina Laird provided engrossing performances in a tense revival of August Wilson’s King Hedley II, which brought gang culture, music, old promises, superstition, and more into the dark terraced residences in which young King Hedley faces old adversaries.
The Duke of York’s hosted a bleak version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, with a watery curtain call and a scene-stealing performance from the dependable Peter Wight opposite Tom Burke’s Rosmer. This play was the first in a run of London Ibsens in 2019.
Finally, the Trafalgar Studios (formerly the beautiful Whitehall Theatre) showed off both its spaces in Admissions, a slightly disappointing look at the politics of university admissions in the USA, and in the beautifully understated Vincent River.
I was happy to review Liza Pulman Sings Streisand on her Cadogan Hall stop, in which Barbra’s songs were celebrated but not impersonated. I was familiar with Pulman from her Fascinating Aida shows, but she is also an accomplished solo artist.
Finally, Beats on Pointe arrived at the ultra-modern Peacock Theatre in a new dance show from Masters of Choreography: with dancers tackling ballet, hip-hop and other styles, this show retained its energy throughout and used music, style and camp to full advantage.
Show count: 11 | Plays: 6| Musicals: 5 | Venues: 11 (new venues: 6)
June included two more Arthur Miller plays to complete the informal season of five – the Old Vic presented All My Sons in which Sally Field was excellent but Bill Pullman disappointed, and the Young Vic had a fresh new production of Death of a Salesman with a cast which was note-perfect.
Wilde reappeared with a clever run of adaptations of Pictures of Dorian Gray in which character genders were switched in a variety of perspectives. I saw C, with a female Dorian, and found it a dreamy and deviant piece of theatre. Victorian melodrama also appeared at the Finborough in After Dark, a play with songs which didn’t quite live up to pre-publicity.
In this post I’m going to reflect on what I’ve experienced since I relaunched loureviews.blog as a professional concern in January 2019.
This is my own personal viewpoint, based on my experiences over the past seven months.
A bit of background
I have previously built up my career as a professional librarian in academia, for the last four years of my career as a senior manager in a small but upcoming university.
It was a job I enjoyed, and had done well in, but issues with my mental health had caused me to step away from it, and eventually leave both the job and career path, by choice.
Without going into too much detail, I needed to find time and space to work on my own terms, and I am lucky enough to have saved enough money to allow me to do that for at least two or three years. I’m 47 years old now and it is time to do something for me, plus I have a husband heading into retirement in the not too distant future (who has been a brilliant rock thus far).
I have been reviewing theatre shows since 2011 and launched my current blog in January 2012.
I was part of the London Theatre Bloggers network at that time but was unable to take advantage of many of the opportunities on offer, due to work commitments. I attended theatre when I could at weekends, some evenings, but wasn’t as plugged in to the theatre scene as I would have liked. Leaving my paid job has allowed me to change all that.
Building the brand
I changed my Twitter name and my blog name to match each other, created a new profile, and upgraded my blog to become Premium.
I upgraded my Pinterest account to a Business one and started to redesign it and regularly share my blog posts to it.
I joined Instagram and upgraded to a Business account, posting every day.
My Facebook page has been active since 2014 and all posts are automatically uploaded to it, and I also add all posts to my personal Facebook page to be seen by everyone.
My LinkedIn page has been completely redesigned with a new profile and regular posts from my blog. It retains all my previous work experience and publications information.
My personal photo is the same across all my social media, and I now have business cards to support my blog and social media.
My heaviest use of social media is on Twitter, which is about 70% theatre-related and 30% other (cinema, local interest, politics). I have a list of theatres and shows that I follow, plus other bloggers, and regularly interact with them and retweet content.
Every show I see is reviewed, whether I have received a complimentary ticket, a discounted ticket, or have been unwise enough to pay full price.
To give you an idea of what my personal experience has been, so far this year I have paid over £3,000 on theatre tickets and have received around £600 worth of complimentary tickets.
I have started to utilise discount services such as TodayTix, lastminute.com, and there are also seat-filling agencies. I have also had to set myself a travel budget as travelling around the capital, even with an Oyster card, isn’t cheap.
My average spend on a theatre ticket works out for 2019 at £45: I would like to reduce this further for 2020.
Finding a niche
I am not a specialist in any particular type of theatre or arts – I review plays, musicals, dance, opera, music, exhibitions, and cinema. I attend West End shows and fringe shows, professional shows and amateur shows, revivals and new writing, gender-specific, queer, black theatre. However I have avoided immersive theatre, so far.
I have launched a number of occasional series on my blog which I intend to keep up – The Mix, which is a news round-up which started monthly but is currently running a bit behind; Fringe Focus, which will be as regular as possible; interviews and features on shows big or small (often those I cannot make a gap to see, but find interesting enough to run to raise awareness on); and my quarterly look-back at my own performance attendance.
More features and content are planned for 2020 and beyond.
Treating it as a job
My blog and related social media take around 4-5 hours of my time per day, on top of time attending performances (average 3 per week, more if I can).
Although it is not bringing in any money, it must be treated professionally for it to be taken seriously, to build trust with PR representatives and performers, and to increase its reach and visibility.
My email signature has my blog address, my Twitter, and my Linked In profile listed, and I hope I am always polite and interested in whatever interactions I have.
I also ensure I promote and mention shows I can’t see, but which sound interesting. My first love is the theatre business, after all.
For someone who is shy and socially awkward, this has been the hardest bit to learn. I must approach people to find new connections and opportunities, which means approaching PR, production companies, theatre creators and other bloggers to increase my network.
At the end of 2018 I was on three PR lists, now I am on twelve. Others have started following me on my social media spaces, which seems positive.
Perhaps in 2020 I will get on lists which represent the “big boys”, which would be nice for my pocket, but it’s far from essential. I’ve grown to love the fringe spaces and shows I have seen this year, and with over 250 theatres within London itself, there’s still a lot to see.
In 2020 I would like to have the opportunity to do some interviews in person, so we’ll see.
Setting realistic goals
My goals this year were to engage with more PR companies, see more shows, and increase my followers.
My more personal goals were to look after myself, increase my confidence (going out on my own, going/travelling to new places, handing out some cards), and to engage with others working in the same space.
I’d recommend anyone moving into blogging has an idea of what they would like to achieve, and a plan for how they can do it.
I have goals for next year which include getting my blog syndicated and having access to more opportunities, but I know I must work for that.
Saying no is also an important part of being a blogger – my strategy has been, no, sorry, I can’t fit in your show but if I like the sound of it, let’s have a chat about it and I’ll do a bit of promotion for you.
It’s also important for me to know my limits including evening shows, number of shows (two show days wipe me out) and where in London I can realistically travel outside matinee times.
Negotiating blogger etiquette
This is a big learning curve for me, as I am not sure whether I should contact PR companies or wait for them to find me (I’ve started doing the former, and they can only say no or ignore me, or maybe even say yes).
What level of social media engagement is the right one is also a minefield – I tend to be active on Twitter a couple of times a day, with several posts/retweets, but I don’t have a clear strategy about reposting my own content yet.
I’ve tried to reach out to other bloggers, who in the main are a friendly bunch, but one or two do shut you down if you’re not a ‘name’. That might have bothered me at one time, but it doesn’t now, and there are by far more friendly and supportive bloggers out there than not: an invaluable network of creatives.
Dealing with rejection
This is something all bloggers probably must deal with at some point, but it is still a tricky one.
I write for myself, primarily, in my own space, on my own blog. If someone only wants to give opportunities to specific publications or sites, or need to ‘pre-approve’ you, that’s fine (as I’ve already said, I’ll pay for a ticket and come and review anyway).
My writing credits speak for themselves, not just in blogging. Follow my Linked In link to see the articles, books and chapters I have written over the years. I’m not a novice, and I believe my writing is honest and valuable.
I think bloggers are just as valid as professional critics – perhaps more, as we are unpaid and do it for the love of the sector we’re in. But now and again, you’ll get the message that your brand and your blog just doesn’t cut it, and that’s OK.
Identifying new opportunities
This year has been a real voyage of discovery. Finding out the theatre and performance spaces in London has been interesting enough (Twitter, Instagram, and the londontheatremarathon project have been invaluable), but then finding shows, companies, and creators is a minefield.
Following other bloggers gives clues, as press releases are shared, detective work starts, and emails get sent out. I have a spreadsheet, of course (every former librarian loves a spreadsheet). I read The Stage. I subscribe to every London theatre’s mailing list (I think!) and follow them all on Twitter. I listen to podcasts, watch vlogs (I want to launch my own at some point), search across social media platforms and theatre news sites.
I try to challenge myself – this year I didn’t attend the Vaults Festival because I wasn’t familiar with the space, but now I am, and I’d like to go in 2020.
I can’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe as travelling that distance on my own is too scary at the moment, but I am attending some of the Camden Fringe, the Richmond Theatre Directors’ Festival, and did one show each in the CASA Festival and the LAMDA Summer Season student showcase.
If a theatre across London has a matinee performance, I do my best to see something there (if not this year, then next).
I’ve contributed to four crowdfunding projects for shows this year, and even if I cannot see those shows, I still post about them.
This is one of the most important things to me: many bloggers struggle with mental health issues, for example, and we support each other. We all have similar goals and want each other to get there. It doesn’t take much to say something nice, or get a message out to your followers.
Be nice to everyone: I learned that from my previous career when as a manager I helped a lot of people navigate and climb up the career ladder.
Now I’m finding my way (but not a beginner) in the blogging world, a new name in a crowded space, but I really want to be here, and stay here. So, I accept the help of others, and help them where I can.
Know your own worth
This goes for any facet of life, but as a blogger I know I’m good enough to find my niche, to find those opportunities, to be part of the London theatre scene.
If I meet my deadlines and my obligations, I’ve done my bit. If you’ve offered me a complimentary ticket, or an interview, or a product, then I expect you to stay in contract and deliver on your part of the bargain.
A lot of blogging admin is chasing emails, sending reminders, following up leads, but I do expect to be treated as a fellow professional, and I promise to reciprocate.
2019 has been my first year as a proper professional theatre blogger, and I had several aims at the start of January:
To visit as many London theatres as possible, particularly West End and fringe
To link up with at least three new PR companies to increase my review range (shows where I received complimentary tickets are indicated by *)
To increase my Twitter following, and expand my Pinterest presence
To utilise Instagram and YouTube to support my blog
So far all is going to plan, which is very gratifying. I am enjoying exploring new venues and seeing shows which may not have been on my radar.
Without more ado, here’s a look back to my theatre-going for the first three months of 2019!
Show count: 9 | Plays: 1 | Musicals: 8 | Venues: 9 (new venues: 0)
The first month of the year always means “Get Into London Theatre” and the New Year sale, and this year was no exception. Although there may be more lucrative discounts available, if you like to save a bit of money and plan your trips in advance, I’d recommend this.
I managed to catch Dreamgirls shortly before it closed at the Savoy, caught up with the long-running Matilda at the Cambridge, and experienced the joy of Olivier-winner Sharon D Clarke’s performance in Caroline or Change at the Playhouse. The first two really stand on one song each, but are enjoyable enough: I wouldn’t recommend paying full price.
The year began, though, with my first trip to the Almeida, Islington, for five years, to see Simon Russell Beale in Richard II, or as it was titled here, The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Utilising a small enclosed box set and buckets of water, blood and soil, the King’s dilemma was reduced from the trappings of majesty to the fundamentals of man.
Reviews for Bernadette Robinson’s performance in Songs for Nobodies, in which she impersonated Garland, Piaf, Cline, Holiday and Callas, persuaded me to go along to the Ambassadors. This talented singer managed to evoke the memories of all those great stars with a minimum use of props and settings.
The National Theatre’s production of Hadestown was coming close to the end when I saw it, and I was impressed and amused to see the parallels with last year’s Mythic at the Charing Cross. Hadestown, though, is a fine musical with some excellent voice work and songs created by Anais Mitchell.
The cult hit of regal girl power, Six, was a pleasure to attend at the Arts; an old favourite, Aspects of Love, briefly stopped in the intimate setting of the Southwark Playhouse; and one of my favourite theatres, the Menier Chocolate Factory, provided a fine revival of Fiddler on the Roof – which has now deservedly transferred to the Playhouse.
Show count: 7 | Plays: 2 | Musicals: 2 | Other: 3 | Venues: 7 (new venues: 0)
The final show in my “Get Into London Theatre” crop of discounts was the new musical Come from Away, at the Phoenix. This fine one-act piece of theatre, about the Canadian town of Newfoundland which welcomed several displaced planes and their occupants on 9/11, is one of the best new works to come to the capital for quite a while, and I was glad to see it obtain a number of awards at the Oliviers.
I also saw a preview of Waitress at the Adelphi Theatre, which was the show where one of the famous pies went missing. Although it has done well on Broadway, Sara Bareilles’s musical version of the film by Adrienne Shelly is simply servicable, with few memorable songs despite the hard-working ensemble cast.
The two plays I saw were Cougar *, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond (first visit since 2011), and the much-hyped When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, starring Cate Blanchett, at the National Theatre. There were definite parallels between the two, but I found the National’s production somewhat overblown, and perhaps not worth the trouble of the ballot and high ticket pricing.
Show count: 11 | Plays: 7 | Musicals: 3 | Other: 1 | Venues: 11 (new venues: 5)
March began with a trip to see Stephen Rea in the much-lauded Cyprus Avenue, at the Royal Court, which was certainly an uncompromising watch, but performed brilliantly. It was my first visit to the theatre, which is an old-fashioned wooden structure with a modern stage, and it felt quite the right space for this disturbing play by David Ireland.
Gently Down The Stream, over at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, was written by Martin Sherman and starred Jonathan Hyde, in a tender and waspish look at gay history and an age-gap relationship in 1990s London.
All About Eve, at the Noel Coward, was a quirky but not entirely successful adaptation of the famed Bette Davis film, with Gillian Anderson and Lily James in the lead parts, but Monica Dolan and Stanley Townsend stealing the acting honours. There was a bit much too reliance on video work for me, but I will continue to support the stage work of Ivo van Hove, which is rarely boring.
A trio of musicals were all enjoyable – Showstopper! brought a fun form of improvision back to The Other Palace; Violet let us take a ride on the Greyhound bus at the Charing Cross; and the 60s classic Hair * made a welcome stop on its 50th anniversary tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre.
The interesting new venue in North Kensington, the Playground Theatre, hosted a revival of My Brother’s Keeper *, a sharply observational dramedy about family relationships and the NHS; and a new play, Alys Always, starring Joanne Froggart, ran at the Bridge Theatre.
My first visit to the Tristan Bates Theatre, just off Seven Dials in the Actors’ Centre, was to see the showcase Character Solos, a number of variable solo performances from young writer-actors which deserved a little more attention and attendance.
The Old Vic’s building work may be obvious, but the revival of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock (a play with music), was a good primer to what will prove a mini-season of the playwright’s work at a variety of London venues this year, and I applaud the venue for continuing to offer excellent discounts to regular patrons.
Closing off the month was one play I had waited for ever since the collaboration with the Barbican Centre was announced: Enda Walsh’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, starring Cillian Murphy. This inventive mix of physical comedy, technical trickery, and a touching and terrifying central performance made this worth the delay in bringing it into London.
World’s End * | The Feeling * | The Doctor | The Fishermen * | Falsettos * | Preludes | BFI Musical Film Season launch | The Son | Crown Dual | MTA Musical Theatre Showcase | What Girls Are Made Of * | Hansard | Caissie Levy | The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole | Call Me Fury | The Life I Lead | BFI: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote screening with Q&A
Coming up in the fourth quarter of 2019
London Film Festival: 4 x screenings | A Doll’s House | Shida | Glass Kill Bluebeard Imp | Gentlemen Prefer Blondes | Tokyo Rose | Amelie | Mother of Him * | Femme Fatale * | Red Velvet | Cassidy Janson | Baby Reindeer | Big the Musical | Translations | Two Ladies | Beryl | [blank] | Friendsical
Terror at the Sweet Shop | The Antipodes | Reputation * | Groan Ups | Black is the Colour of My Voice | Superfan: Nosedive | Kelli O’Hara | Hamilton | Mary Poppins | I Do! I Do! | Frankenstein | Taming of the Shrew | Uncle Vanya | When the Crows Visit | Measure for Measure
Austentacious | Goldilocks and the Three Musketeers * | Ghost Quartet | &Juliet | Ubu | Fascinating Aida | As You Like It | Robin Hood | Girl From the North Country | The Little Prince | The Boy Friend | Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
Over at the Etcetera Theatre on Camden High Street, a new revival of Jack Thorne’s Stacy has just opened, produced by Inkwell.
Stacy is a sexually explicit confessional monologue for one male performer and a slide projector. It was first performed at the Arcola Theatre in 2007, and ran at the Edinburgh Festival and in London in 2012.
I wanted to know more about the revival and the contemporary relevance of this play, so put some questions to director Caoimhe Blair.
It’s been twelve years since Stacy was first written and performed. Why is the time right to revive it now?
I read Stacy for the first time about a year and a half ago, and it crawled under my skin and nestled there. Its disturbing and highly complex protagonist constantly popped up in my head when talking to friends about issues usually relating to the #MeToo movement and its lack of spotlighting women without a platform, and women most vulnerable to abuse.
I then came across a copy of Stacy that had the original blurb on it (as my copy was within an anthology) and I was struck by how dated it seemed in comparison to the play text itself. The blurb described the protagonist as finding life ‘confusing’ and spoke of him as being misguided and unlucky. I wasn’t sure if the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of the blurb was to trick the audience into believing they would be seeing an entirely different, almost jovial show, or if it was sincere and a product of its time (2007).
Either way, it lead me to reread the play, and consider deeply if someone could read that blurb, see the play, and connect the two as being one and the same now in 2019, and putting on a production of it seems the best way to find an answer to that.
What is your vision of how to present Rob to an audience? Should observers feel engaged with him, repelled, sympathetic, or something else?
I want Rob to cause the audience a headache. He is a wonderfully layered character to explore, full of contradictions, instabilities and deep seated issues and his shocking lack of self awareness can pivot so suddenly into absolute clarity making him one hell of a story teller.
The journey he takes us on is hugely engaging but Rob can be frustratingly erratic when he chooses to tell or drop his story, and what he chooses to tell us. Remembered events sometimes flows out of him easily, and at other times seems to spurt out of him involuntarily and cause him tremendous pain.
The power of Stacy is that it doesn’t necessarily paint Rob as an irredeemable monster, he is so very human and his desperate need to connect to the audience and make us understand him shows at least at some level that he understands what he has done and now has no idea how to come to terms with it.
Rob is defined by his relationship with power, isolation and the sense of entitlement that comes with growing up pretty, and receiving attention and praise with ease as a result, but what makes him dangerous is his recognisability. Rob is disturbed, definitely, but he lives a normal life, has normal issues and fears, and he is in no way a one off case.
Some productions of the play have chosen to utilise the set to make its own comment on Rob’s state of mind. Without giving too much away, what should audiences expect on stage at the Etcetera?
In terms of staging, we have kept things very simple for our rendition of Stacy, in order to keep the story as focused and as aware of its surroundings as possible. Our Rob knows that he is in a theatre, and that he is presenting himself and his story to the audience.
As a result, it is an actor, a stool and over 700 cued projections, many of which give faces to the people he speaks of. With such a simple set, Rob is free to fill the space with his stories and he paints pictures of people and places wherever he chooses as he takes us on the harrowing presentation of the previous few days of his life.
Tell me something about the company putting on this production. I know you are recent graduates, and I’d like to hear a bit more.
Originally based in the small town of Felixstowe, Suffolk, Inkwell was formed by a trio of theatre makers: Sean Bennett, Ruby Lambert and Keelan Swift-Stalley. The company then began running productions at the University of East Anglia, recruiting fellow student Ned Caderni as a director, and I got involved as an actor having worked with Ned on previous productions. I acted in their 4 star Camden People Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya and during that time pitched to them my vision for this production.
Several months later, after Ned and I graduated, Inkwell got in touch with me and said they were holding a slot for me to direct and have financially backed me throughout, giving me full creative reign, which has been a fantastic and informative experience.
What is particularly appealing as a director about putting together a one-person show?
A one person show means intense rehearsals. There is absolute focus on one performer which gives us the luxury of working through tiny details and nuances as well as lengthy character discussions. Peter Hardingham is excellent at multi-roling but rather than just finding character quirks we were able to hot seat him as each character and find depth to them, regardless of their importance or amount of time being enacted.
Doing a show that focuses on such a sensitive topic with such a complex, unreliable central character, means that Peter and I have been able to work collaboratively to find the humanity in Rob, and safely test boundaries and interpretations of the text until we settle on a version that fet truest to the both of us.
Finally, how does Stacy fit into the recent climate of #Metoo and gender fluid debating?
I was asked a lot during the audition process if my reasoning behind doing Stacy now in 2019 was because of the #MeToo movement but I feel strongly that that isn’t the case. The widespread accounts of sexual abuse were a surprise to no one that has listened to and believed women over centuries of abuse. The notion that a high profile protects you from power dynamics being abused and used against you has been truly dismantled by the movement, which makes it clear that women who have no media influence are even more vulnerable to harassment and abuse. Stacy puts a spotlight on that.
More often than not, perpetrators are known by and close to the victim, and violent crimes are committed in places that the victims should only associate with comfort and safety. Those that have committed the crime can live their entire lives not believing to have done anything wrong, which is truly terrifying.
By placing the narrative in Rob’s hands, the audience must follow a story affected hugely by his perspective, and battle with the self excusing and unloading of trauma he delivers whilst trying to make himself understood. Forcing an audience to listen to and possibly even relate to a character who explains amongst so many other things that he has violated someone that trusted him, makes it harder to dismiss all rapists as monstrous bogeymen that only exist in shadowy streets, and instead opens up the conversation of consent, assault and the effects of toxic masculinity in our society.
The effects of the #MeToo movement may bring in a more critical and open minded audience, and an audience that sadly, may be less shocked by what unfolds, but Stacy was just as relevant when it was written in 2007, as it is now.
My thanks to Caoimhe for her detailed and thoughtful answers, and to Ned for facilitating our interview.
The traditional Christmas pantomime comes to life at the Questors with a sweet princess, a dotty dame in the personage of the Queen, and a hissable villainess as the green witch Caraboose causes havoc.
The formula of tradition – boos, “it’s behind you”, singalongs, and an eclectic and well-curated set of songs – works well.
The children in the cast are a talented bunch and in the principals, a nod needs to be given to old hand Howard Shepherdson as the Queen, Russell Fleet as a magnificent bad girl, and Rory Hobson as the Buttons-like Billy, who leads the audience in song with the old tongue-twisting coffee pot number.
There’s a hint of blue for the grown-ups, a nod to big ticket musicals (the whole castle rises up against the threat to their princess with ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ from Les Mis, and Aurora greets her prince Orlando with Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’), and tributes to variety we’ve lost – the show opens with Ken Dodd’s ‘Happiness’.
Once again this hardworking amateur company have provided the goods for a fun and reasonably priced family show.
Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again. I have written about it here and here.
However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.
From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).
I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up. Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you. London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.
This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.
No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health. How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed. How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.
For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen. Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.
I do plan my visits, though. I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city. If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.
If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me. So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.
I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage. The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day. The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme. How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow). The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.
Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks. The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.
What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!). Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.
All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away. For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us. I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul. Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.
Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both. When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable. Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.
If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.
Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery. Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength. And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.
When I was at school, we spent some time assessing the works of Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey, specifically his trilogy of classic works (Juno and the Paycock, Shadow of a Gunman, The Plough and the Stars). This play, The Silver Tassie, did not get an Abbey Theatre premiere and was dismissed at the time of writing as a confused mess of stories and scenes, comparing unfavourably with Journey’s End, also set in the Great War.
This National Theatre revival still has a feeling of confusion and doesn’t quite hit the right note of O’Casey’s voice and poetry, but it has moments of greatness, particularly in act two, where a soldier sings of the desolation of war, and in the final moments, where a dance becomes a grotesque and moving comment on the devastation conflict has brought on a small community, not just the town bully who, blinded, becomes the piece’s philosopher, or the football hero who, bitter and paralysed from the waist down, has to reassess his life.
With ear-splitting explosions and an amazing transition of scenes between act one (set in a typical alehouse with comedy schtick characters) and act two, the field of battle, this play remains relevant and connects with its audience, although it can feel a little slow in places and the framing characters of Sylvester and Simon feel a little like pale cousins of the Paycock and his friend from ‘Juno’.
Over at the National Theatre, a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Liolà is running, adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Richard Eyre, with an all-Irish cast.
At first the juxtaposition of Irish accents with an obviously Italian setting jars a little, but as becomes clear, this is the story of any displaced community fending for itself, and the decision by the director to cast it in the way he did just about works. Liolà himself is a playboy on the surface – he has three young sons by three different women, has no thoughts of marriage, and has no qualms about picking the best fruit from the vine. He’s beautifully played with surety by Rory Keenan – you shouldn’t like this character because of his fecklessness and devil-may-care attitude, but as the play enfolds we see a loving father and a good friend, who has the ultimate solution to old Uncle Simone’s problem of not being able to father a child with his beautiful young wife, Mita.
Liolà has been described as a pastoral comedy, and in its laconic view of life and use of music to illuminate the story, it does have wit and intelligence. But there’s more going on under the surface than immediately appears. Liolà’s mother, Ninfa (Charlotte Bradley) knows her son better than anyone and will defend him to the hilt, but knows inside that his unorthodox ways have brought shame on their family. Simone (James Hayes) is sixty-five and has had a previous barren wife, yet he violently abuses and blames Mita (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) for his lack of fortune.
On the periphery of this cauldron of family emotions are those who watch (Rosaleen Linahan’s Gesa, aunt to Mita; and cynical old-maid Càrmina, played by Eileen Walsh) and those who scheme (the Azzara mother and daughter, Croce (Aisling O’Sullivan) and Tuzza (Jessica Regan)). Whether peeling potatoes, crushing nuts, or singing to while away the hours, these women rule the roost and dominate the play.
Anthony Ward has designed an impressive set which in a mass of concrete, wood, and one large tree, gives a flavour of 19th century Sicily, as does Rich Walsh’s sound design of chirping cicadas and off-stage chatter. Liolà is a play which takes a little time to get going, but when it does, it is a tale worth watching.
With John Lithgow imported from Broadway in the lead (perhaps best known for the 1996 sitcom 3rd Rock From The Sun), Timothy Sheader as director, and glorious set designs from Katrina Lindsay, this farce by Arthur Wing Pinero really cannot miss. In fact the inspired sets are worth the price of admission alone.
The decision to add songs by Richard Stilgoe and Richard Sisson is curious, but serves to cover what could be irritating gaps in the action while sets, props and people are moved into position. The story is a simple one centering on white lies, people being in places they shouldn’t be, and misunderstandings, all served at a cracking pace.
Lithgow’s Posket is the star of the show, but I also enjoyed Nicholas Burns’ ridiculous Captain Vale, Joshua McGuire’s swaggering Cis, and Roger Sloman’s proper clerk of the court (a minor comic great). Nancy Carroll as Agatha, the magistrate’s trustworthy wife (or not, as the case may be), is also a hoot.
Eugene O’Neill’s 1924 play ‘Desire Under The Elms’, set in New England and using themes of Greek tragedy to destroy a family, is given a strong revival here at the unusual Main House of the Lyric, Hammersmith (which is a rebuilt Victorian theatre within a 1970s concrete block).
Simeon and Peter run their father’s farm and lament their lot – but seem to lack the energy to do anything about it. Their half-brother Eben is treated worse than a slave and simmers with resentment at the way father and sons treated his mother. And when word comes that the old man has married for a third time, it is the first step in a life-changing situation for everyone. The older sons seek gold in California, while Eben is left to the mercy of Abbie, forty years younger than her new husband, sexually frustrated, bored, and horny as hell.
Not one character in this boiling pot is sympathetic. Abbie has no real feelings and swings between love and hate alarmingly, while heading blindly to her own destruction. Eben appears selfless but is dominated by the memory of his ‘Ma’ and chewed up with hatred of his ‘Pa’. Simeon and Peter, who are not seen in the second half of the play, are coarse farm-hands, with wild dreams. The father himself, the coldly religious Ephraim should gain our interest but he is selfish and hard to his ‘soft’ sons, and so deserves all he gets.
The Lyric’s set is simple, with three buildings moved around by costumed stage-hands, and a guitar player to set the musical mood. This ‘Desire’ sparkles, with Finbar Lynch’s Ephraim and Denise Gough’s Abbie being the stand out performances. Even after nearly ninety years this play doesn’t feel as if its message is dated. Recommended.
Sophocles seems to be in the air this week, following the BFI Southbank screenings of Oedipus the King/Oedipus Tyrannus on Thursday night, and now this current production of Antigone, the third of the ‘Theban Trilogy’, at the National Theatre next door to the BFI.
This production of Antigone, directed by Polly Findlay, uses the same translation by Don Taylor which also featured in the 1986 BBC broadcast of the play (with Juliet Stevenson as Antigone and John Shrapnel as Creon). Here, in a modern dress production which opens with a scene reminiscent of the much-reproduced photograph of President Obama and his close followers watching the death of Osama Bin Laden, where Creon and his ‘court’ are summoned around a flickering television on which we suppose is the depiction of the final battle between the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta.
These sons are proclaimed, one a hero, one a traitor, and the traitor will be left unburied and to pollute the atmosphere, much to the consternation of Antigone, who sees her correct course in obeying the decrees of the Gods only, and not the King, her uncle Creon. Creon sees the State and the Statesman as one, and any relaxation of authority to be weakness – even the urging of his son Haemon to listen to others and take counsel falls on deaf ears, and through the words of the Chorus (here arranged as in a press room) and the predictions of the soothsayer Teiresias, we see how even the mightiest of men can be wrong, and therefore fall.
Antigone is played by Jodie Whittaker, her Northern accent jarring with her pleas for being the last of the daughters of Kings – but she is very good, especially in the scene where she calls to the Gods to protect her against the cruelty of man. As Creon, Christopher Eccleston is full of misplaced pride – and in reflecting on this character as he appeared in the first Theban Play (Oedipus Rex), wanting a quiet life only until forced to become Regent for the small sons of Oedipus, when that mighty King fell from favour, it is fascinating to see him here making the same mistakes of pride that afflicted his brother-in-law. He sees himself as supreme and above the power of the Gods, he pre-empts them, and he will pay for it.
In modern dress the play still works within a setting rich with politics and corruption, and the use of glass rooms and mirrors allows characters to wander in and out of settings where they do not belong, and for the audience to see multiples of the same character as they soliloquise. At a spare ninety-five minutes, this production zips along, and although the storyline may seem unbelievable now, it feels relevant, as the playwright still has something to say after all these years.
This new production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic play (first staged in 1956) visits Richmond and Milton Keynes before a planned run in the West End from April 2012.
The plot can be described as somewhat melodramatic, and in a way a blueprint for what we now recognise as basic soap opera plotting – this in no way diminishes the stature or power of the original play, but gives it a contemporary relevance which could be lost in the many references to dope fiends, consumption, and the kind of reckless property profiteering which was engaged in at the time the play is set (around 1912).
James Tyrone is an actor who failed by becoming a great commercial success in one part; in one lengthy reflective speech he remembers being praised by the great Edwin Booth for the technique he brought to his Othello and other great parts. He still retains three sets of Shakespeare’s plays but knows his chance has gone. His wife Mary seems at first a bundle of nerves but we soon realise the truth is far more disturbing as she is a long-time addict to morphine, which disturbs and destroys her mind with every dose.
Their children are as dysfunctional as one might expect, growing up in the Tyrone household. James Jr is a hard drinking loafer, with no job and a fondness for whores, while Edmund is sensitive and fond of poetry (Swinburne, Rossetti) and is suffering from consumption – just like his grandfather on his mother’s side, who died of it. The brothers both love and hate each other, and their relationship, plus the relationship each of them have with their parents (and the parents with each other) are explored throughout the four acts (slightly abridged) of this play.
David Suchet, as Tyrone Sr, has been promoted heavily as the star of this play, and is largely effective, although his accent is a little unsettled (there’s American in there, and Irish, as you would expect, but also at times a hint of Jewish). In the quieter passages of the play and those with flashes of humour he is more convincing than in the times where he is required to show passion and anger – still, this could change as the play’s run continues.
As Mary, American actress Laurie Metcalf is hampered by an unconvincing wig and at times inaudible delivery, choosing to speak some of the character’s passages rather too quietly or quickly. But as a ‘ghost in the past’ she does convince as a hopeless addict slowly closing herself off from the world and her family. There have been many great Mary Tyrones in the past, and she has a lot to live up to. I found her part was not quite as powerful or moving as it should be, and that her scenes with younger son Edmund disappointed.
As the children, Kyle Soller shows himself to be a fine young actor in the difficult and pivotal role of Edmund. He is quite mesmerising at times, even when on the sidelines observing the more vocal members of his family. Trevor White is not quite at the same level and I found James Jr rather a tiresome character, rather one-dimensional – I didn’t really care much about whether or not he returned from his binge in the whorehouse or not. And his speech about being jealous of his sibling doesn’t quite work.
Taken as a whole, I went to this production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with quite high expectations, which were not quite met. However, I feel that any shortcomings might be addressed in its regional runs before West End opening, and look forward to seeing what the professional press make of it.