Archive for ‘Features’

9 February, 2010

Olivier Audience Award shortlist: four musicals and a horse

Written for The Collective Review, 9 February 2010

I promised you a reminder to vote in the second round of the Olivier Awards’ brand-new category, the Audience Award – so here it is.

The winner of the Audience Award for Most Popular Long-Running Show of 2009 is determined by the votes of the general public – the first time an Olivier Award winner has been decided by anyone outside the Society of London Theatre.  The first round of voting whittled a long-list of 20 eligible productions down to just five.

Those five are (in alphabetical order):  Billy Elliot – The Musical, The Phantom of the Opera, War Horse, We Will Rock You and Wicked.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the enduring popularity of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton’s nonsensical jukebox musical featuring the music of Queen – but popular it is, and acknowledging popularity rather than critical acclaim is the point of the Audience Award, so I suppose I must grudgingly admit that it deserves the nod (while simultaneously grumbling under my breath that plenty of shows on the longlist managed to be both phenomenally popular and good theatre at the same time).

What is heartening about the shortlist is the eerily perfect proportional representation of musicals and “straight” theatre.  The longlist consisted of 16 musicals and four plays – an 80-20 split, if you want to talk percentages.  The shortlist contains four musicals and one play, War Horse – another perfect 80-20 split.

Now, unlike a lot of critics I could name, I don’t hate musicals (unless they’re We Will Rock You).  I’m perfectly happy to see musicals dominating the Audience award shortlist:  they’re the golden geese of the commercial West End, they get people into theatres and (with the aforementioned exception) the ones on the shortlist are actually good.

But all the same, it cheers me up to see War Horse holding its own up there.  It’s evidence that the taste of the British theatregoing public – your taste, in other words – is more varied than it’s often portrayed in the media.  Mindless handclappy escapism is not the only reason to visit the West End, and the spectacularly emotional War Horse – plus the intelligent, literate and iconic musicals featured on the shortlist – proves that.

Click here to help decide which of the five will take the gong, but be warned – I’m compiling a shortlist of my own, and voting for We Will Rock You is a surefire way to end up on it.

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29 January, 2010

Excuse me, you’re standing in my dead men’s shoes

Written for The Collective Review, 28 January 2010

Theatre reviewing is a dead men’s shoes business.  One someone lands a chief critic position at a national newspaper, they’ll traditionally hold onto that position until they’re buried or senile.  So for all the deputies and second-stream critics, and for all us up-and-comers watching hawk-like for new deputy or second-stream opportunities, the voluntary retirement of two chief critics within a year of one another should have been a cause for (slightly guilty) celebration.

In March of 2009, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard quit so he could concentrate on writing plays of his own.  And this week, the mighty Benedict Nightingale, chief critic of The Times for two entire decades, announced he was stepping down too.

What many of us assumed would happen next – what we’d been counting on happening next – was that everyone would effectively shuffle up one level.  Dominic Maxwell would take Nightingale’s position as chief critic, one of The Times’s favourite freelancers would probably get Maxwell’s job, and a space would open up on the paper’s freelancers list.  In short, there would be opportunities.

Instead, both de Jongh and Nightingale were replaced in pretty short order by, respectively, writer Henry Hitchings and journalist Libby Purves, both figures from outside the theatre journalism bubble.  Bold and unexpected moves by the Standard and the Thunderer – but while Hitchings is doing an excellent job, and it’s difficult to imagine Purves putting a foot wrong, what does this mean for the rest of us?

It means we all stay on the rungs we’re on, of course, but more importantly it means we’re less likely than ever to move up even by one.  There are fewer paid critics’ positions than there’ve ever been, they’re only vacated once in a blue moon, and the message we’re now gettingis that even when one does open up we have zero chance of getting it, no matter how much commitment and drive we show, no matter how much talent we display and develop, no matter how many years we spend working for free to build our portfolios.

Well, fine.  Forget the nationals.  Forget the dream of being paid to do what you love.  Instead, get a day job and embrace the internet.  Make a hobby of it, not a career.  Critics were once commonly viewed as dilettantes and dabblers – and if we aren’t allowed to climb higher, moving backwards towards that romantic image may be our only sensible option.

21 January, 2010

New Olivier Award celebrates the power of you

Written for The Collective Review, 21 January 2010

This year’s Laurence Olivier Awards will include a brand new category, the Audience Award, introduced to celebrate the nation’s favourite long-running production of 2009.  Notice that I say ‘the nation’s favourite’, not ‘the Society of London Theatre’s favourite’.  The nominees and eventual winner of the Audience Award will be decided by a public vote.

Public opinion polls aren’t exactly news, especially in Theatreland; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group make their most significant casting decisions via televised phone-in these days, after all.  But the Oliviers, like the BAFTAs and the Oscars, have always been a strictly industry affair.

The judging panel for the Theatre category (which also includes musical theatre) consists of five experts and eight members of the theatregoing public; but nominations can usually only be made by members of the Society of London Theatre, so the ordinary mortals on the panel can’t fight for a show that isn’t already endorsed by the industry.

The Audience Award nominees, on the other hand, will be determined by an online poll that’s open to everyone.  Once the nominations are announced, in the week beginning 8 February, a second round of public voting will determine the winner.

To be eligible for nomination, a production must already have been running on 1 January 2009 and still have been going on 31 December 2009.  To run for that long a show has to have immense popular appeal, so it’s only appropriate that the people who kept them open – who made them eligible – should be the ones to honour them in British theatre’s most prestigious ceremony.

The eligible productions, in alphabetical order, are:  The 39 Steps, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot – The Musical, Blood Brothers, La Cage Aux Folles, Chicago, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story On Stage, Grease, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Les Misérables, The Mousetrap, The Phantom of the Opera, Stomp, War Horse, We Will Rock You, Wicked and The Woman In Black.

Click here to vote for your favourite – and stay tuned to t5m through February for comments on the nominees and a reminder to vote in the second round.

14 January, 2010

No excuses: theatre is affordable

Written for The Collective Review, 14 January 2010

Hey, did you see Avatar?  Did you see it in 3D?  What about IMAX 3D?  What did you pay?  I paid £12.50, plus online booking fee, to see it in IMAX 3D (at the Odeon in Wimbledon, if anyone’s asking), and I was just one of millions:  millions of people who have proven themselves willing to spend £12.50 or thereabouts on an evening’s entertainment.

If you’re one of those millions, you can easily afford a night out at the theatre.  Not nearly enough people realise this.  The expense is probably the most common excuse for not attending the theatre, but if you can afford a cinema ticket – especially in London, where a peak ticket can cost up to £11 even without IMAX or 3D or other trimmings – you can afford a theatre ticket.

No one’s disputing that the West End is expensive, but there’s more to theatre than Theatreland.  And cheaper tickets don’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality product:  thanks to a sponsorship deal with Travelex, you can see certain productions at the South Bank’s National Theatre, arguably the UK’s most influential venue, for just £10.  Production values at the National rival the commercial West End, and there are no bad seats in the theatre’s vast Olivier space; the £10 view is as good as the £40 view.

A short walk from the National, in an atmospheric vault under London Bridge, you’ll find Southwark Playhouse, whose ‘airline-style’ pricing means you can get tickets for as little as £8 if you book early enough.  A little further afield, but still in Zone One, is the Royal Court, which specialises in brand new work by up-and-coming writers; on Mondays, every seat in the house costs just £10.  A lot of the Royal Court’s productions end up transferring to the West End, where top price tickets can cost five times that sum – so see them while they’re cheap!

If you want somewhere to spend the money you’ve saved on your ticket, try the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.  It’s a tiny but very flexible space located above the Prince Albert Pub.  They specialise in new translations of foreign plays, and tickets for the first three performances of every production are just £8.

If 100-seater spaces under bridges or over pubs aren’t your idea of theatre, you could do worse than the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; their main performance space is an impressively ornate Victorian proscenium arch, complete with stalls, circle and boxes, and they offer £10 tickets for certain performances of every production.  Or for a less baroque experience try the Almeida Theatre in Islington – cheapest tickets £8.

As if all those affordable venues weren’t enough, if you’re under 26 you can get into some of the best performances around without paying a penny, thanks to the Arts Council’s A Night Less Ordinary scheme.  Just go to www.anightlessordinary.org.uk, type in your postcode and you’ll find a list of theatres, including most of the ones I’ve listed above, that you’re entitled to patronise free of charge.

Understand, too, that this is just a sampler of the venues and deals on offer.  Even the West End can be affordable (ish) if you don’t mind visiting the TKTS booth in Leicester Square in person, and I’ve barely begun to cover London’s thriving and criminally overlooked pub theatre scene.  So no more excuses:  if you can afford a cinema ticket, or three pints in a London pub, you can afford a night out at the theatre.

7 December, 2009

Bush Theatre re-opens to unsolicited script submissions

Written for The Collective Review, 7 December 2009

The moment the Bush Theatre axed its script reading team, citing a lack of funds, was the moment the recession became real for me. Beforehand I’d been taking my usual naïve/optimistic view of the situation, confident that it couldn’t be as bad as the media made it out to be, and that it would soon blow over with no major consequences. The discontinuation of script reading at one of London’s premier new writing theatres, though? That was a major consequence.

Which is why it’s excellent news that the Bush are back doing what they do best, only this time with an additional social networking element. Bushgreen.org is a site “for people in theatre to connect, collaborate and publish plays in innovative ways”. Playwrights can submit their manuscripts directly to the Bush’s team, or publish them publicly on the site for other writers to critique, or for publishers and producers to peruse. There’s even the option to charge for downloads of your script.

When I signed up on the site myself, I discovered that, whether deliberately or unwittingly, the Bush have taken a stance on the issue of whether critics are part of the artistic establishment, or whether, as the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer would have it, they stand apart (“the belief that critics are part of the theatre community” is, says Spencer, a “great misapprehension”).

You can register on the site as a Playwright, Actor, Agent, Director, Dramaturge, Choreographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Literary Manager, Producer, Production, Production Manager, Publisher, Set Designer, Sound Designer, Stage Manager, Student, Enthusiast, Theatre Company, Group or Other. Critics – in fact journos of any kind – apparently aren’t “people in theatre”, or worse, we’re the feared and exiled Other.

I doubt very much that the Bush are actually trying to make any kind of statement with this; it’s much more likely I’m drawing random conclusions having happened to stumble on the site not long after wading through the critical blogosphere, catching up on the debate. But it’s worth stating that I think critics absolutely are part of the theatre community, and that reviews – and increasingly, comments on reviews – are as much a part of the creative process as writing, rehearsal and performance. A show doesn’t end when the house lights come up. Its influence continues to resonate as long as it’s inspiring debate.

27 November, 2009

Belt Up, Tim Crouch and breach of contract

Written for The Collective Review, 27 November 2009

At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Belt Up premiered a new piece of experimental theatre called Leasspell. It involved the company and audience standing together for half an hour, all blindfolded and telling one another love stories. While Belt Up themselves readily admit that Leasspell was not the most successful of experiments, it did raise certain issues that the company explored further this week in a discussion event charmingly titled ‘Chatting Shit: Immersive Theatre and the Actor/Audience Contract’.

I was particularly interested when the discussion – held in a remote attic of the BAC and, thanks to short notice and a start time that fell during office hours, attended mostly by BAC staff – turned to the work of Tim Crouch, having seen the self-proclaimed “darling of the universities” in conversation with playwright and lecturer Dan Rebellato only the previous day, at Royal Holloway University.

In The Author, which I felt pretty favourably about when I reviewed it for the London Theatre Blog, Crouch and his three co-performers repeatedly encourage the audience to contribute. We’re asked, again and again, “Is this okay?’ or “Do you want me to stop?” or “You say something”. At one point, a performer is uncomfortably hot-seated, in character as a survivor of sexual abuse; the sequence ends with the appeal, “Would anyone else like to ask Karen any questions?”

But when members of the audience respond to this encouragement they are ignored. If someone says yes, they would like Crouch to stop, he continues regardless. If someone fires a question at Karen she remains resolutely mute, and after a pause the play continues. And in conversation with Professor Rebellato, Crouch insisted that there is no space in the play for audience participation, claimed not to understand why anyone would continue Karen’s interrogation, and likened the audience’s desire to contribute to a prima donna actor demanding space to improvise in Shakespeare or Beckett.

The consensus amongst the Chatting Shit attendees was that by inviting the audience to speak, the cast of The Author implicitly alter the actor/audience contract that exists in ‘traditional’ or ’straight’ theatre, whereby the actors act and the audience passively observe. Belt Up create similar implicit contracts when the cast of The Tartuffe mingle and chat with the audience in the bar pre-show, or when they adorn the audience with hats and neckerchiefs at the beginning of The Park Keeper. Symbolically loaded actions such as these inform the audience that the show’s boundaries are not in the usual place, and that the environment they’re entering is more permissive.

So are Crouch and his co-performers in breach of contract when they refuse to respond to audience contributions that they have explicitly invited? Similar questions have been asked of Ontroerend Goed, in whose Festival Fringe smash Internal punters confide personal secrets to performers in intimate one-on-one encounters, then sit helpless as their confidants pass on the information in group discussions.

The difference, as far as the Chatting Shit participants could discern, is one of dramatic intent. It was felt that Ontroerend Goed’s dramatic intent is clear: Internal is an interrogation of emotional openness and vulnerability and, most importantly, you get out what you put in; your humiliation extends only so far as you willingly bared your soul in the one-on-one.

The dramatic intent behind The Author, on the other hands, seems to be to get a habitually passive audience to speak up against onstage events that they find morally offensive, but in actual fact, Crouch seethes behind his smile when members of the audience question Karen, feeling that they are perpetrating an act of abuse. But it’s the contract that he, as both a playwright and a performer, implicitly creates between himself and the audience – the permissive environment woven by the words he wrote – that permits this act of abuse to occur. So really, he should be seething at himself.

25 September, 2009

Launched: theblogpaper, the troll’s soapbox

Written for The Collective Review, 25 September 2009

This time last week, thelondonpaper published its last ever issue. Just one week later another publication seeks to fill the resulting vacuum.

Anton Waldburg and Karl Jo Seilern-Aspang, creators of theblogpaper, style their new freesheet “the first user-generated newspaper in the UK”. Users submit articles and photos to theblogpaper.co.uk, where their content is rated out of five by the community. The highest rated content in each category is then published in a weekly print edition, distributed for free around London à la thelondonpaper, London Lite or Metro.

So far, so bleeding edge*. Crowdsourcing is the new self-lacing trainers, after all; theblogpaper should (in theory) be to thelondonpaper what Wikipedia is to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

That theory holds up pretty well until you actually pick up an edition and read it. It’s not Waldburg and Seilern-Aspang’s fault; they harbour the naïve and optimistic hope that their newsmaking community will be self-moderating. “[W]hen constructed by the general public,” they opine, the process of reportage “becomes naturally incredibly accurate, due to the fact that people who write about specific subjects tend to already know a great deal about it.” Which doesn’t take into account the vast number of internet users who think they know a great deal about something but are in fact ignorant cretins. But wait, the community will filter out the ignorant cretins by rating them poorly, and their content will never see print! Well, not necessarily; you can’t trust an anonymous online community to engage in civil debate, as anyone who’s ever felt their eyes scorched by the abyss of flaming spam beneath every YouTube video, good or bad, will testify.

The result is that despite its creators’ good intentions, London’s latest freesheet is composed as much of ill-informed, dreary and bilious ranting as it is of well-researched, dreary and irrelevant pontification. More importantly, very little of the first edition’s content can accurately be described as news. A couple of articles respond to events that were newsworthy weeks ago (Cartrain’s theft of pencils from Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, or Usain Bolt’s latest record-breaking sprint); but it certainly isn’t news to anyone but the contributors that last.fm’s recommendation algorithm is quite accurate, or that music festivals are a bit commercialised these days.

If theblogpaper survives long enough for its community to grow, perhaps in the future it could feature articles by genuine experts, rated by a pool of voters big enough that the open minds and level heads outnumber the spammers. Until then it’ll continue to read like a collection of op-eds by right-wing forum trolls from two weeks ago.

*Well, ish. Joshua Karp founded The Printed Blog in the US in late 2008. Karp’s paper takes the idea further, printing twice a day and producing different editions for different areas, with content filtered by geographical proximity.

21 September, 2009

Scratch Festival

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 11 September 2009

Battersea Arts Centre’s Scratch nights have always been about risk-taking and experimentation, and with Freshly Scratched – one of the two parallel programmes in this year’s Scratch Festival – the venue’s staff are taking almost as big a risk as the audiences and performers.

The scratches – ten-minute conceptual pieces and works in progress – that comprise Freshly Scratched have been selected purely on the basis of written applications. So though the event’s curators presumably have some inkling of the sort of thing in store, when it comes to opening night they’re in the same boat as the public: experiencing the acts for the first time. What little foreknowledge they have is offset by the greater risk they’re taking; while the audience risks just £5 each on the unknown quality of the acts, the organisers stake their reputations as judges of artistic quality.

On the festival’s first long weekend we’re treated to a wordless bromance enacted between two skinny white men with moustaches, tethered by guy ropes to opposite ends of a ridgepole tent; the surprisingly gripping spectacle of most of a tin of treacle dripping slowly down the trembling back of a naked man; a group of people narrating their losing battle with gravity; and to fellow audience members forced to abandon their roles as passive spectators and physically ward off a performer’s intimate advances.

It’s exhilarating to see the curator stand up following a performance and exhibit the same breathless uncertainty the audience is feeling. Because the BAC’s staff lead by example and don’t leave all the risk-taking up to the artists, the BAC becomes an environment in which risk-taking is the norm, and acts must push more boundaries than anywhere else in order to appear more than usually innovative.

And this is only the first round of this year’s Freshly Scratched: while these scratches are themed around Reasons for Living, the next two weeks will feature acts inspired by Democracy and by David Lynch. So it isn’t too late to share that opening night sensawunda with the people who make it all possible.

Not only that, but the Festival also incorporates the Graduates Festival strand, showcasing an assortment of talent hand-picked from the graduating classes of experimental theatre courses nationwide – including a live video installation in the bar, the chance to communicate with yourself in the year 2014, and a particularly intense and exhilarating example of audio-directed performance. I challenge anyone to find a similar volume of similarly brave art for £5 a ticket.

11 September, 2009

Reviewing the upholstery

Written for The Collective Review, 11 September 2009

I spent a pleasant hour on Wednesday experiencing Theatretank’s ÁTMAN, which involved wandering the residential streets and footpaths of south Wimbledon while listening to an abridged audio version of Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation.

Theatretank’s mp3 player setup was one of the better ones I’ve come across when investigating audio-assisted productions. The player was small and simple to use and, even better, came with a lanyard, so I could hang it around my neck instead of cramming it into one of my already overloaded pockets like I had to for Rotozaza’s Wondermart; but the headphones themselves, though they were great at blocking out ambient noise, kept working their way free of my lugholes.

I spent a good long while during and following the performance trying to decide whether to mention the wayward earbuds in my review. I kept coming back to this question: would reviewing the apparatus as well as the content be equivalent, in straight theatre terms, to reviewing the theatre upholstery as well as the onstage action?

I don’t have a concrete answer. And there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with reviewing the upholstery; if your seat is uncomfortable it impacts upon your experience of the play. The West End Whingers often take leg room, sight lines and bar tariffs into account in their reviews, rating their entire night out, not just what they see on stage.

What does excite me – as a combined theatre geek, language geek and futurism geek – is the effect audio-assisted productions are having on one small corner of the critical landscape. The language of criticism as it stands is inadequate to describe performances like GuruGuru or Rotating in a Room of Images, so every article or review written about such productions must experiment and re-evaluate until a new vocabulary is formed.

The term ‘production’ gains precedence over ‘play’, because ‘play’ implies an audience and performers, and many audio-assisted productions have neither; which in turn necessitates the use of a term like ‘participants’ for those involved. There are ‘audio-instructed’ productions like GuruGuru and ‘audio-assisted’ productions like ÁTMAN and David Leddy’s Susurrus.

As the landscape evolves, language evolves so we can continue to describe it. You don’t have to be a language geek like me to appreciate the symmetry.

4 September, 2009

Arts futurism – theatre in the newsfeeds of the future

Written for The Collective Review, 4 September 2009

So let’s assume for the moment that print newspapers are, indeed, nearing the end point of a lengthy and unintended suicide at the hands of their own free online content distribution systems. Let’s briefly put aside the alternative theories and concentrate on the one where the presses are silenced and all professional journalism moves online to compete directly with the blogosphere, and with traffic-driven content aggregator/distributors like T5M.com.

What happens to the theatre page in this new order?

Not the most pressing question facing the industry, perhaps, but I’ll leave the pressing questions to the big hitters and stick to my area of interest (I would say ‘expertise’, but apparently I need 10,000 hours’ experience for that).

Theatre is a niche subject. Those of us on the inside can scream and kick at the glass walls all we like, but they’re thick and soundproof and all that wailing about the educative and community-forming power of live performance just doesn’t reach the ears of the general population.

Keeping that fact in mind, consider this: T5M.com is all about the traffic stats. Look up there to the top right of the page and you’ll find a box displaying the ten most viewed posts in the arts channel. You see any of my posts in there, or any of Ben Cooper’s? No. Because only theatre fans are interested in what we have to say, and there aren’t nearly as many theatre fans as Kate Bosworth fans out there.

Consider also that T5M.com operates a revenue-share policy, so while this channel gives me valuable by-line exposure and a platform for airing my views, my only material reward for writing this stuff is half the channel’s ad revenue. Ad revenue is determined by, you guessed it, traffic. By choosing to write about a niche concern like theatre rather than, say, celebrity gossip, I’m effectively capping my own income.

If this is representative of how things are going to work in the journalism industry from now on, then it’s no longer worth anyone’s while to write about theatre – or, for that matter, any minority-interest subject.

Call it social Darwinism if you like, but no print newspaper would get away with excluding coverage of theatre, or folk music, or LGBTQ culture simply on the grounds that the majority aren’t interested, and I don’t think the newsfeeds of the future should be allowed to either.