Arts journalists won’t know our arts from our elbows today, as we are sent hither and thither by a revolving door of public (and online) engagements. First up, at 10am, there’s a press launch for the latest incarnation of the Roundhouse, that magnificent brick former railway shed at Chalk Farm. An hour later, the new Eva Peron for this summer’s Evita will be announced (to those who haven’t read the Sunday Times, that is, or this blog). And an hour later again, this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards take place at the Prince of Wales Theatre. I’m not sure I can get to all three, but I will certainly be at the last, as I’m presenting an award (to the winner of this year’s Best Designer category). And you can all be there for the announcement of the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, which will happen online simultaneously with the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. And then of course tonight there’s the opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Apollo. I’ll update this blog as events unfold….
The Roundhouse, built in 1846 and capable of housing 23 steam engines for repair, was redundant within 8 years of its construction, and subsequently became an alcohol storage depot. In the 1960s it became known for the rock gigs it housed, including a now legendary appearance by The Doors in their only-ever UK gig. Subsequently it became well known for presenting cutting-edge theatre, from Peter Brook and the Living Theatre (that saw a naked conga proceeding from here to Camden Town), and even the original home of Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta!, not to mention a transfer house for Michael Elliot’s Royal Exchange, Manchester, for a time. But various efforts to put it on a permanent theatrical standing have floundered, including a season when it became the RSC’s temporary London home after it had abandoned the Barbican; but a 1998 run of Argentinian theatre troupe De La Guarda gave the Roundhouse its biggest theatrical hit of all, when it ran here for 11 months.
Then there were plans for it to become a black arts centre; but finally the Roundhouse is being put back on the map and as a multi-purpose contemporary arts (and part-time conference) space – the largest, non-arena performing space in North London, capable of housing up to 3,300 standing or 1,800 seated spectators. At this morning’s press conference to launch the venue, it was announced that it will re-open in June with Fuerzabruta, a new show from the creators of De La Guarda, that promises to be another interactive event, by the look of the video they screened of it (but looked like a bad evening at a nightclub to me). Still, the venue looks fantastic, and it will be great to have this endlessly versatile, ultimate “found” space back in action.
Eva Peron lives again
I wasn’t sure when I wrote my introduction this morning whether I would actually get to the Langham Hilton near Oxford Circus for the launch of the new production of Evita, but thanks to the enterprising persuasion of The Independent’s arts correspondent Louise Jury we managed to hear the end of the Roundhouse speeches before hastening on the tube to the Hilton, where we arrived in time for the 11.15am kick-off for the Evita launch, introduced by producer Andre Ptsaszynski for the Really Useful Theatre Company, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (and, by pre-recorded video, lyricist Tim Rice, who happened to be in Argentina right now on a cricketing tour) and man-of-the-moment, director Michael Grandage. Lloyd Webber spoke of his enthusiasm for re-visiting the show (and updating the orchestrations), and Grandage called it “one of the great musicals of the last century” that he saw as a student.
When I asked Grandage from the floor how he would deal with the “iconic moments” of the show, such as the famous balcony scene, he responded, “We have to remember that some of those were invented by Peron herself,” and Lloyd Webber pointed out that staging moments like that were actually specified in the stage directions that they wrote before it came to production, so would be retained.
Elena Roger, the diminutive Argentine star who will be playing the title role, was introduced and sang ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, proving that when the show opens in June at the Adelphi there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards
…And then it was on to the next event of the day: the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, held this year for the first time in the downstairs bar of the Prince of Wales Theatre. This is always one of the most ‘clubbable’ events of the theatre calendar – partly because invites are necessarily restricted, mainly to the nominees and those connected to them, and partly because it’s the one occasion where the two parties from either side of the footlights – the judges and the judged – come together on common ground to celebrate rather than criticise what each does.
It’s a slightly weird occasion as a result – there’s some barely contained hostility in some of the acceptance speeches, most notably this year from Richard Bean, who, as he took the prize for Best New Play for Harvest, jibed that his speech would be three hours long and we wouldn’t like the ending – something several critics complained about of his play! And his speech ended with him telling us, “When a group of writers get together in a pub, they slag off critics”. And as we waited for a punch line, he said that was it!
And it’s also an occasion for critics to get things off their chest, too. Nicholas de Jongh – whom Critics’ Circle chairman Charlie Spencer introduced as “rather acerbic but strangely lovable” – launched into a diatribe about the disappearance of the central aisle at Cameron Mackintosh’s refurbished theatres; and then proceeded to strangely compare his honoree, Michael Grandage as best director for The Wild Duck, with “a superior form of lavatory cleaner: he reaches and illuminates the parts of plays that no other director usually reaches”.
Quite what the theatre folk make of all of this is anyone’s guess; I suspect that are confirmed in their belief that the critics are a slightly cranky bunch. And maybe we are. Arthur Smith, deliciously introducing the event, wittily spoke of how the event is free of the usual PR machinations – and then pointed out how it had clearly been eschewed today by coinciding with the announcement of the Oscar nominations, so it’s unlikely that anyone would cover them at all tomorrow!
But Whatsonstage.com, who announced the winners of its own Theatregoers’ Choice Awards simultaneously online, gave both sets of awards full play (and, except for Billy Elliot as Best Musical and Kevin Spacey – overlooked entirely in the Olivier nominations – for Best Shakespearean performance for Richard II in both, increased the news value by producing strikingly different in their results that uniquely pits the critics vote against the public one). Disappointingly, though, the attempts of Whatsonstage.com Radio (of which I am a part) to speak to the Critics’ Circle winners afterwards was entirely thwarted by the over-zealous press officer, who told me that it hadn’t been cleared in advance; but since when did publicity clearance have to be given for a bit of PR that was only promoting them?