There’s a phenomenon that usually happens on the Edinburgh Fringe where you’re so busy rushing and doing and seeing things that there’s little time to digest what’s actually happening, let alone finding the time to do the journalistic work itself, which is to commit one’s thoughts to paper, print, web or even the ether (as radio work immediately evaporates into, unless your words are temporarily reprieved by the good offices of the BBC’s Play Again facility). And sometimes things get a bit overwhelming in London, too. Hence the occasional absence of an update from me in this space, though I do try to commit to a daily entry. But in the last couple of days I’ve been besieged with an onslaught of commitments including press briefings, press previews, interviews and plays (seen and missed) that I’ll try to catch up on now…..
Sometimes one gets the unexpected bonus of a night off. I was all set to attend the return of Stones in His Pockets on Monday evening, when an e-mail arrived from the press office: the performance was cancelled, owing to a viral illness being suffered by co-star Hugh Lee. Funnily enough, I’d wandered by the Duchess on Saturday afternoon, and had seen an understudy notice posted in the foyer – and the matinee board had curiously been altered to a later start time that afternoon, presumably in order to get it rehearsed – and I wondered whether this would affect the press night. It duly has, though performances will resume the next day, says the press release, with the alternate actors instead (the understudy cast), until Lee is fit to return.
But the trouble now is when to re-schedule a press night when he finally is: the press night diary for the next two weeks is entirely full, and is in fact frequently double (and sometimes triple) booked (as witness next Wednesday’s triple-hitter of a double bill of Dominic Cooke’s productions of Pericles and The Winter’s Tale in Stratford-upon-Avon, and The Sound of Music in London). The Almeida have, for instance, been forced once again to settle on a Friday opening for Charlotte Jones’ The Lightning Play – the least popular night of the week for an opening, because the nationals tend not to do overnights of Friday openings, the Sundays won’t appear till the following weekend, and the reviews can get lost. (Of course, Friday nights are sometimes chosen precisely for this reason, when a producer wants to ‘bury’ the reviews).
But though I was looking forward to seeing Stones again, it’s not such a severe loss: frankly, I’ve variously seen it four or five times already, between its runs at the Tricycle, New Ambassadors and Duke of York’s, and once even in Toronto, when the production first travelled there en route to Broadway and I interviewed original stars Conleth Hill and Sean Campion backstage afterwards for an American publication.
The day starts with this year’s Empty Space Peter Brook Awards ceremony at the Theatre Museum – the 17th year of these unique private awards, set up and administered by the indefatigable Blanche Marvin to honour the UK’s smaller studio theatres, and judged by Blanche with a panel of professional critics that comprises the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner, the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, the Standard’s Fiona Mountford and myself. Though Lyn and Dominic get to the regional studios far more than Fiona or I do, and I sometimes only scratch at the surface of what’s going on in the London fringe spaces, I enjoy this job and responsibility for the real opportunity it presents to honour an important theatrical sector that is little marked elsewhere in this way. And sometimes, too, we can make a real difference: today’s prize to the Scoop – the free outdoor space next to City Hall – for the up-and-coming theatre category comes with a £1,500 cheque, and since the Scoop’s mission is to present theatre for free, every little bit counts towards keeping it that way. The money, by the way, is Blanche’s personal gift, as is the £2,000 for the winner of the Established Studio (this year, the Orange Tree), plus £350 cheques to each of the other nominees (two in each category). It’s an incredible expression of Blanche’s real commitment to this world.
But though she insists that the awards are there to honour the theatres, today the person most honoured is Blanche herself. Now 81, she’s literally unstoppable, bouncing back after a bout of cancer laid her low over the summer. And it was genuinely affecting to see the warmth and genuine affection she is held in, with heartfelt tributes from Thelma Holt (who no doubt recognises a kindred spirit in Blanche, since Thelma is no less indefatigable herself) and Peter Brook (by way of his assistant Nina Soufy, who makes the trip over from Paris every year specially to represent him), as well as the Independent’s Paul Taylor, who read extracts about Blanche he’d penned in his diary over the years. (The subject of Paul’s diary, which we didn’t know he keeps, was a cause for some alarm amongst the gathered critical throng afterwards; what’s he written about us?)
But if Blanche today was the centre of the gathering, and has always been the reason that it happens at all, it was also the end of an era, since the award’s formal home, the Theatre Museum, will be closing to the public in January (and Blanche, in typical style, is holding a send-off open-house the day before it shuts). The awards, like Blanche, will however go on elsewhere, and hopefully forever.
And tonight, appropriately, she’s already back at it – I walk into the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, and there she is, for the first night of Meredith Oakes’ Scenes from the Back of Beyond. (So, too, are Fiona and Dominic; there’s often a déjà vu about going to the theatre on first nights, since we’re invariably surrounded by the same colleagues, but after today’s awards it feels even more so). Tonight’s performance is entirely stolen by the appearance of a gorgeous real-life baby at the end of the play. It’s an amazing, wide-eyed debut, full of expression of hope for the future. Alas, however, the author (who was sitting in front of us) tells Blanche – who of course has to ask her whose baby it is (she belongs the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme administrator Nina Lyndon) — afterwards that usually it will be a prop baby, not the real thing!
There’s no interval, but Fiona and I spend the next half an hour catching up. We don’t even reach the bar – we stop on a landing on the long trail downstairs, and simply chat there. Fiona gets so comfortable she even takes her shoes off. She didn’t like the play at all – as we discover yesterday with her one-star notice in the Evening Standard – and she’s anxious after Ian Rickson stops for a friendly word (he’d been at the awards this morning, too, and says nice things about them. He usually avoids going to such ceremonies, but he turns up to this one for Blanche). Knowing what she feels about the play, there’s a feeling of duplicity, perhaps, in this kind of social friendliness; but that’s different to the job we’re there to do. And I think – I hope – that there’s an understanding on both sides that to do our jobs we have to call it like we see it, regardless of personal connections. It’s something I’m going to be sorely tested on tomorrow.
Two consecutive press events in the morning get me off to an early start. At 9am, we’re called to the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, for a “press breakfast” – coffee, croissants and pastries – to hear of this tiny puppet theatre’s plans for the next year. Though I’ve known about it for years, many of us only ever finally went to it for the first time a couple of years ago when Gregory Doran staged a puppet version of Shakespeare’s narrative poem Venus and Adonis there a couple of years ago. Now he’s reviving it, first at the Swan Theatre, Stratford as part of the Complete Works season in March, and then returning it to the Little Angel; and he’s here today to talk about his connections to the theatre. In fact, he tells me, though he lives nearby, he, too, had never been inside till he finally did this show there, so that makes two of us.
He’s of course also in the midst of rehearsals for Merry Wives – the Musical, for which it was announced just two days ago announced that Desmond Barrit had sustained an injury (doing DIY, it turns out, that would take five weeks to heal) and that Simon Callow was replacing him as Falstaff. Greg revealed the secretive plans to conscript Callow – who was tracked down to a beach in Malta where he was filming last Wednesday – to join the RSC for the first time, since Greg didn’t want to destabilise the cast by telling them of Des’s indisposition before he had a replacement ready to announce. More personally, Greg also told me of the long-established professional rivalry between Callow and Greg’s partner Antony Sher, who could in fact be twins of a kind: they were literally born a day apart in the same year. Each has long kept a watchful eye on the other’s careers. Sher has undoubtedly had more classical success than Callow, but Callow more film success than Sher; both are acclaimed writers; and both, as it happens, have partners who are theatre directors (who have directed them in plays), who are both bearded! “We could go on and on!”, joked Greg. But with Callow now working for Greg, the two households are being joined…. So perhaps the compliment could be repaid by Sher working for Daniel Kramer next!
But we’re not here to swap RSC gossip, at least no more so than we’ve done already! The business of the day is a celebration of the Little Angel (where Greg intends to workshop a production of Gulliver’s Travels next, to see if it works). But though this theatre has been one of London’s best-kept theatrical secrets since it was founded all of 45 years ago, its now reaching far, far wider than before, with its production of The Mouse Queen, for instance, currently now at the Unicorn and then going to Hampstead Theatre for Christmas. Film director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice), son of the theatre’s late founder John Wright, was on hand to talk with huge affection about the role the theatre played in firing his own creative imagination. And new artistic director Peter Glanville spoke about other new lottery-funded initiatives that the theatre is about to embark upon.
Then it was straight onto an “open rehearsal” for Scrooge – the Musical, that a few press reporters and photographers were invited to sit in on as this touring production makes its final preparations before hitting the road in Wolverhampton next week. Producer Bill Kenwright ran a similar exercise for his production of Cabaret ahead of that opening in the West End, and it’s interesting to give the press a glimpse of the church hall environments in which shows like these are created. But whereas Cabaret had been set up as an interview opportunity with all of the creative and principal cast members available for interview, today was more of a photo-op only: the reason for the interest in the production at all – the return to the stage of Michael Barrymore for the first time since the debacle of his failed one-man comedy show at Wyndham’s in 2003, that closed immediately after its press night – was not available to talk to yet. Instead, we saw him going through his paces with some panache that saw some of the old sparkle and confidence back in place. I spoke to Bill afterwards, one of the old-school of producers – probably our most prolific, in fact, who keeps product churning through theatres up and down the land – and it’s always refreshing to encounter his unique brand of spirited enthusiasm and unquenchable belief in theatre.
Worrying, as I did, about the lack of plays in the West End – not helped by Bill’s own neglect of the form this winter as he has concentrated on bringing Cabaret to town – he replied, “I don’t think we have too much to worry about with the playhouses, I truly don’t” – and then revealed his card for the new year, that included Billie Piper starring in a new production of Christopher Hampton’s Treats, plus a revival of a Somerset Maugham play and a new play by Richard Harris. But the fact that Bill usually offers such a full slate of plays in production like this means that we feel its absence even more keenly when he doesn’t.
And talking of old-school producers: Paul Elliott is another of our longest-serving veterans, but unlike Bill, has slowed down a bit lately. I’ve always liked Paul, because he talks straight: when he revived Rattle of a Simple Man two years ago and it promptly failed, I asked him why it didn’t work, and he said, “It wasn’t good enough and you were right”, referring to my review. When I saw him at the TMA Awards a few weeks ago, he pulled me to one side to tell me about a new departure for him – writing his first-ever play, There’s No Place Like A Home, and wondered whether I could catch it when it got to Bromley this week. I said I would and was true to my word, seeing it last night; but now I have to tell it straight, too. Set in a retirement home for aged actors, the play offers a home for 9 aged actors plus four younger ones, but really they and the play should have been sent into retirement at the first rehearsal. One of the old actors says at the end, “I’m not past it – I can still paralyse an audience”, but so does the play.