Welcome to the first “short shorts” column of the New Year, a weekly round-up of notes and quotes that don’t fit into the blogs on individual subjects I file on the other four days of the week.
After the usual slow start to the year’s theatre activities which meant that Quentin Letts’s Daily Mail theatre page last Friday, for instance, comprised reviews of shows at three studio theatres from Jermyn Street to the Gate and Trafalgar 2, we’re back to the full tilt of multiple openings every night again: next Wednesday, for example, there are clashing openings at the Old Vic Tunnels and New Diorama, while on Thursday there are even more serious clashes between the Almeida, Southwark Playhouse and Soho.
Of course SOLT maintain a first night diary on which producers log what dates they propose to invite critics to review their shows, but there’s no obligation, of course, not to clash with one another: early next month, the Barbican and West End go head-to-head with each other on February 7, with openings for Improbable’s The Devil and Mr Punch in the Pit and the import of the recent Broadway production of Master Class with Tyne Daly as Maria Callas to the Vaudeville, as well as an opening on the same night for a play at Theatre 503.
But that’s not all - regionally, the same night brings clashes in Northampton (Oedipussy, co-produced with Spymonkey), Southampton (Headlong’s new touring production of Romeo and Juliet), Sheffield (The Way of the World with a wonderful cast that includes Samuel Barnett and Deborah Findlay) and Leeds (Waiting for Godot, Ian Brown’s departing production as artistic director at West Yorkshire Playhouse). So that’s seven places that national critics could potentially be on the same night!
No wonder critics have their heads in a spin, let alone their diaries. It’s all good and well on papers that still field multiple critics, like The Times, Guardian or Telegraph, but even with two or sometimes three critics on the beat, we obviously still can’t be everywhere!
I’m having to play catch up a bit on some of what I missed in the last five weeks, as well as seeing the new stuff as it opens, which is putting me under even more pressure. I’m squeezing them in by going to some matinees - earlier this week, for instance, I went to see the Wednesday matinee of Lovesong at Lyric Hammersmith, and arrived to discover it was a performance largely filled by schools groups.
That always fills me with fear and dread - will they behave? Will they spend the performance texting? - but on this occasion it was testament to the brilliance of Frantic Assembly’s production that it held (most of) them spellbound. Only the girl sitting next to my guest showed signs of restlessness, until he told her in no uncertain terms to be still. She immediately complied!
And next Thursday afternoon, I’m subjecting myself to Huis Clos at the Trafalgar Studios 2. Hell may, in the famous words of Sartre’s play, be other people, but hell may in fact be Studio 2: my partner has already vowed never to go there again after enduring the stifling, cramped conditions at the opening of the Donmar Trafalgar’s first play of the season, Salt Root and Roe.
As Quentin Letts said in his Daily Mail review, “Whoever chose the Trafalgar Studios’ No 2 studio for this show — the venue is London Theatreland’s most horrid little black hole of Calcutta — was rather brilliant in one sense. If audience members feel mounting claustrophobia during the 105-minute, one-act show owing to the heat and lack of space, does this not match the experiences of Sartre’s three main characters?”
Charles Spencer in his review for the Daily Telegraph, suggested a different definition for hell: “After almost two interval-free hours packed into the cramped, subterranean and infernally hot Trafalgar Studio 2, one wanly concludes that hell is also being forced to sit through Huis Clos in a dusty old English translation by Stuart Gilbert, who died more than 40 years ago.”
The first big opening I saw this week on my return to London was Travelling Light at the National Theatre, which - belying its title - was rather heavy going. But I was moved by a passage in an interview with its star Antony Sher in The Times this week by Andrew Billen, in which it was mentioned that Sher will play Sigmund Freud in a new production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria at Bath Theatre Royal later this year, that “Sher has long acknowledged his own debt to talking cures, in particular art therapy (to add to his accomplishments as an actor, memoirist, novelist and playwright, he is a remarkable painter). He was cured of cocaine addiction after admitting himself to rehab at the Charter Nightingale clinic in London in 1996. ‘Cocaine was horrible, another sort of waste of time. I look back at some of these experiences that I’ve been through as a waste of time and energy. But they aren’t really. You have to go through those things to be who you really are’.”
He also gives away another backstage secret: “At the RSC, in my early days there, it was widely used and you would watch one another taking it, but I can’t imagine a situation now where I would ever see or know that people were doing it. The RSC would have been horrified had they known and there are much stricter policies now with the RSC and the National even about drinking. In the old days, the bar at the National for example would be open at lunchtime.”
Finally, no sooner did I return from Australia on Monday, where last week I saw the entirely revamped Oz version of Love Never Dies in Sydney, than I was invited to a private screening of the DVD version of that production at the Soho Hotel, so I saw the show twice in less than a week!
The worldwide DVD release will bring that production to a much wider audience than can get to see it in Australia, and may well pave the way for future productions. I have a private anxiety that the show could cannibalise its own audience by making it available so cheaply on DVD - why would you need to see it in the theatre if you’ve already seen it, from the best possible vantage points, on screen? But when I suggested this to Lloyd Webber at the post-screening drinks, he thought that on the contrary this would be a way to encourage audiences into the theatre, and saw it as a bold new way to bring musicals to a wider public.
Video performances of live productions are certainly something that’s playing big these days. The idea was long pioneered by New York’s Met, who are broadcasting their jukebox baroque opera The Enchanted Island, comprising music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others and devised and written by our very own Jeremy Sams, live into cinemas in the UK tomorrow; I looked up trying to go to see it at the Barbican, and seats are a staggering £28 but were already sold out! It has also, of course, been developed further by NT Live, whose next broadcast will be of the aforementioned Travelling Light on February 9.