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Careful with your coriander, that’s what makes the gravy grander

I may complain regularly here about aspects of the theatre, from greedy producers and high ticket prices to the lack of good original musicals being produced and the absence of enough new plays in the West End. But I never complain about my job: I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Sometimes I’m asked if I ever tire of going to the theatre night after night and writing about it afterwards, and the truth is I never do. There’s always the prospect of being excited, exhilarated, challenged or even bored. (Boring can be enjoyable, too; we all need a contrast from time to time).

But sometimes it is also healthy to take a break - and last week I managed two nights off from the theatre. Not that I was exactly slacking: I still managed to see seven shows across the week. So yes, I doubled up with matinee and evening visits on Thursday and yesterday to make up the numbers. As a therapist once said to me, we can either gobble up our food and not taste it at all, or eat more slowly and savour what we eat.

Taking a couple of nights off allowed me to clear my palette a bit. Sure, the relentless demand of press agents and theatre companies to see their work keeps coming, but as I’ve regularly pointed out here, it’s just not possible to see everything, no matter how hard I try; and more importantly, it’s not healthy, either. You can simply become saturated.

It’s lovely to be able to not merely look at the sofa but actually sit on it, and watch - as I did on Friday night - episodes of Australian Masterchef, to which my partner is addicted. There’s real drama in it, too; but it’s also wonderful to see real competitive achievement and skills being displayed.

But the theatre, of course, is also a feast, and I can never stay away for long. And it was a real pleasure to return to Chichester on Saturday to simply enjoy watching Mrs Lovett making her meat pies once again, and not have to write about it. Though it was confirmed on Friday that Sweeney Todd is now transferring to the West End’s Adelphi Theatre in March, straight after One Man Two Guvnors ends its limited run there, I wanted to see it again in the wide embrace of Chichester Festival Theatre.

I should stress that I planned ahead: after seeing the press night, I immediately booked to see it again. Sure, I had an unfair advantage, in as much as I already knew what my own review said and that it was great; but I didn’t call in special favours. I merely called the box office and booked three side seats (all that was available).

So, to the aggrieved commentator on my blog here who wrote, “Thanks Mark for taking my ticket for Todd. Been trying to get return but kind crit just sneaks in. Bah!”, I would simply suggest that they do what any and all theatregoing enthusiasts do, and plan ahead. I did not take HIS ticket; I earned and paid for mine. Though, of course, the announcement that it is now transferring to the Adelphi in March means that there’s no need to project blame at one’s own incompetence on someone else, but the person concerned could simply plan ahead for then.

As for those side seats: it was also an interesting experience to not see a show from my usual, on-the-aisle berth in prime locations, but to see a show from where many others would. A friend has always said there are no bad seats, there are only bad shows; and it’s true here that these ferociously good performances register from everywhere. Some of the sightlines, of course, don’t; but you get what you pay for (£22 in this case, instead of the £38 top price).

It was also thrilling to watch a regular, paying audience rise to their feet as one at the curtain call. There are times when I worry that British theatregoers may drop their traditional reserve and mimic their Broadway counterparts in giving everything a standing ovation, but on this occasion it was fully deserved. 

It’s wonderful, too, to see Sondheim get this kind of reaction.

And no, Patrick Marmion, the audience wasn’t made up of Sondheim’s typical audience that the Daily Mail’s deputy critic characterised in his review of this production as “a San Francisco-based mafia that will come after you with miaows, hisses and claws unsheathed.”

As Ian Shuttleworth commented in his Prompt Corner to the fortnightly Theatre Record, this comment “is as antique in its homophobia-by-innuendo as William Connor’s infamous portrait of Liberace: “the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter; everything that he, she or it can ever want; a winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love.” That was from 1956. Can’t we at least try to live in the 21st century?”

It also struck me afterwards how great it is that, in an age of reductions of great Sondheim shows, from the Teeny Todd of John Doyle’s awful actor-musician production that came to the Trafalgar Studios from Newbury’s Watermill, or the tiny orchestra version of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of A Little Night Music (when it’s a score that demands sumptuousness), to see them full-blooded (in every sense in this case) again.

Just as Follies on Broadway currently offers a massively lavish (and star-studded) version of that masterpiece, so this Sweeney Todd delivers its searing intensity on a large-scale, too. There are certainly advantages to be gained from studio Sondheim: one of the best productions of the show I ever saw of Sweeney Todd was at the tiny Union, where the musical enfolded you in dampness and dankness, and that was just the venue. But sometimes productions need room to breath, and it was certainly striking that Declan Donnellan’s celebrated National Theatre Sweeney actually improved on its journey from the Cottesloe to the larger Lyttelton.

4 Comments

I'm (unusually) in full agreement with the delight shown at this production. My only reservation was the setting - putting Sweeney Todd into the 1930s is just wrong and the fact that Jonathan Kent has clearly staged this with a pros stage transfer in mind so that those down-at-heel wretches in the side seats at Chichester spent most of our time looking at the actors' backs. However, those issues aside, nobody was more surprised than I at the depth and power of Michael Ball's performance and, while Imelda Staunton's gave more nods than a nodding dog on acid to Vera Drake, dear, her Nelly Lovett is a delicious and darker version than those who have trod the pies before.

I'm not sure why anybody might be expecting Sweeney Todd audiences to comprise “a San Francisco-based mafia that will come after you with miaows, hisses and claws unsheathed” - surely it's too grim a piece to get them out of the Priscillas and Legally Blondes? If there was a sequin in the updated Sweeney then I missed it. What was apparent was the appalling behavior of the real Sondheim mafia - the haughty and imperious seniors who still believe that one has to dress to the nines to visit the theatre and that there are elements in society who wear jeans and therefore would be better off at home drinking cheap lager and watching X-Factor while beating their kids. Or giving them gin.

What's wrong with giving kids gin? I can think of many long train journeys that would have been vastly improved by the application of a couple of large Gordons' and tonic to other travellers' 'young lovelies'...

I actually really enjoyed John Dyle's Teeny, as you describe it, however, that was when I saw it at the New Ambassadors, was there another transfer/version at Trafalgar too?

@Alister: Actually, it began at the Trafalgar, then moved to the New Ambassadors, I believe....

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@Alister: Actually, it began at the Traf...
Alister on Careful with your coriander, that's what makes the gravy grander
I actually really enjoyed John Dyle's Te...
Richard Voyce on Careful with your coriander, that's what makes the gravy grander
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