You can’t blame the critics…

It’s easy to see why Fiona Allan, chief executive of Leicester’s Curve Theatre, is concerned about the role of the press in determining the fate of a new production. In May the new musical Water Babies, opening at the venue, was pretty comprehensively dismissed by the critics – and a new musical based on Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 is set to open there next year.

Allan was quoted in The Stage as saying “I think it’s important for the media to give new musicals a chance… I think there has to be a responsibility, if we want there to be new British musicals, for people to understand that risks are being taken and shows need to be developed and to give things a chance”.

While I’m the first to encourage new writing and original musicals – nobody wants a West End filled solely with jukebox musicals and Lloyd Webber revivals – critics are surely not the people with the responsibility to establish the success of upcoming musicals. Writers and composers need to be nurtured, and given the resources to develop their talents. New work must find financial backing. But at some point a fledgling production must be tested.

It’s essential that creative teams are allowed to take risks if the British musical scene is to thrive, but being given the space to take risks also means being given the space to fail. Having not seen Water Babies I can’t personally comment on its quality, but whatever audience reactions were in the Theatre, the fact remains that theatre critics almost universally found the new work to have failed in its ambitions – unless it was aiming for “musical blandness and emotional mawkishness”.

In a line which now seems prescient, Dominic Cavendish specifically credits “the efforts gone into creating this new musical” when reviewing Water Babies. Yet if he found the music “colourless” and felt that the lyrics “plumb shallows of drippy sentimentality” he had no choice but to say so.

To maintain their integrity critics need to give an honest opinion – if every show gets a rave review then they lose their value. While it must be soul-destroying to have your hard work panned, when you’re asking the public to hand over their hard-earned cash they deserve to read an honest opinion. That’s not to give reviewers carte blanche – negative reviews should aim to be constructive, or at the least civil. It is noticeable that even those reviewers giving Water Babies one star go out of their way to give credit where it’s due – from individual voices to the use of video-screens. I find it hard to believe that any critic goes into the profession with the intention of sabotaging new work – if only because it would eventually put them out of a job.

To censure critics for having an opinion is essentially to deny them their raison d’être. If you don’t want them to judge your work then you probably shouldn’t invite them to. In any case, bad reviews do not necessarily consign your show to failure, just as positive reviews don’t guarantee longevity. The most famous example of audiences flocking to a show in the face of a critical disaster is Les Misérables – having been slated by critics on its opening in 1985, it continues to run in the West End some 29 years later and is the longest-running West End musical in history. While this is obviously not typical it does demonstrate that a production which connects with the audience can overcome poor reviews.

Conversely, several recent high-profile show closures have demonstrated that mixed or even positive reviews can’t keep a show open if it doesn’t capture a paying audience. I Can’t Sing! and Stephen Ward both received three and four star reviews and enjoyed the backing of Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber respectively. Despite the promotional nous of their producers, Stephen Ward lasted just four months and I Can’t Sing! closed after only six weeks.

Reviewing is not an objective science – while some shows are universally acclaimed or slammed the majority divide opinion, to a greater or lesser degree. But critical debate is vital to the health and vitality of the theatre industry.

Urinetown the Musical

Urinetown isn’t the catchiest title for a musical – but then urination isn’t the most appealing subject for a theatre production. Nevertheless, Urinetown does indeed follow the trials and tribulations of a community in its quest to go to the bathroom.

In a Malthusian dystopia where environmental catastrophe has led to prolonged drought, the population is overwhelming the world’s resources. The severe water shortage has created a unique business opportunity for Caldwell B. Cladwell; with private toilets now unthinkable, citizens must pay him for the privilege to pee – or be dispatched to the eponymous Urinetown.

As Cladwell presides over his lavatorial empire, the scene is set by Officer Lockstock. His self-knowing asides could have been grating in lesser hands than those of Jonathan Slinger, who keeps the narration fresh and the action flowing. They do also allow the musical’s dialogue to remain relatively free from unnecessary exposition.

While throwing out some thought-provoking themes and questions – the corrupting influence of power, is history doomed to repeat itself? – Urinetown sometimes lacks emotional punch. This isn’t to fault the cast, who are fantastic. Jenna Russell relishes her role as Penelope Pennywise, giving her an air of Mrs Lovett – interspersed throughout the musical are parodies, pastiches and tributes to musical tropes and there are several Sondheim-esque moments. Richard Fleeshman has leading man charisma as Bobby Strong, leader of the revolution against Cladwell, and the whole cast perform with such gusto that you can’t help but be swept away with them. Run, Freedom, Run – a catchy gospel number – received the longest mid-performance ovation I’ve ever seen.

Urinetown’s slightly facetious tone may sometimes have failed to tug at my heartstrings but its unexpected plot twists certainly kept me guessing. Urinetown is keen to point out that it’s not a “happy” musical. But neither is it a self-indulgent tragedy. Despite its seemingly far-fetched setting and slightly cartoony style, Urinetown is actually quite a pragmatic look at politics and society.

When storytelling, the most glorious revolutions are often the unsuccessful ones. Take Les Mis – there’s a reason it’s set during the 1832 Paris Uprising rather than the more famous eighteenth-century Revolution. Marius and the Friends of the ABC capture our hearts as the underdogs fighting for a doomed cause against the establishment. The rebels of Les Mis die idealistic (if naive) martyrs. If instead of dying on the barricades the revolutionaries had succeeded, who’s to say that there wouldn’t have been a repeat of the violence, war, in-fighting and Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution of 1787. And that would have made for a very different story. Without giving too much away, Urinetown is no Les Mis, and offers a much less romantic take on revolution.

While it seems ironic that Urinetown opened to a country beset by widespread flooding, it brings home the immediate impact of environmental issues. And the fact that difficult questions – environmental or political – don’t have simple answers.

 

 

On a more practical note, it was my first time at the St. James Theatre and I found myself on the front row, not having bargained for quite how close to the action I’d be. If you like inspecting actors’ fillings and don’t mind the odd spray of saliva my seat comes highly recommended, but if you like your personal space I’d think about sitting a few rows back.

Fringe Theatre: Playground of the Privileged

Michael Boyd, former RSC chief, put forward his concerns in the Guardian this week that theatre could become ‘a gorgeous plaything of the wealthy’, with arts education threatened in state schools and prohibitively expensive fees for university courses. He fears that theatre is ‘in danger of self-selecting the wealthy’. His views remind me of my feelings while working as an intern in a fringe theatre – another aspect of the arts that  lends itself to a proliferation of the rich and privileged in the theatre industry.

At its best, fringe theatre is a training ground for upcoming talent, whether it be actors, writers, directors or producers. You can’t expect to make a fortune in a fifty seat theatre over a run of three or four weeks, but you hope that even if you don’t get a transfer you’ll make contacts and attract press to give you (hopefully!) good reviews.

Fringe theatres are not only frequented by young actors seeking a break but also by experienced and established actors who presumably are either attracted to a particular project, have a break in their schedule, want to support emerging talent or just enjoy working in these intimate spaces.

And the quality of the performances in these theatres is often very high. Freed from the constraints placed on many commercial productions, companies often produce inventive and engaging productions of both new and forgotten plays.

Yet for all its benefits and idealism, in practice fringe theatre has become (or has always been?) a playground for the rich. People work right through their twenties on the fringe, never making any money despite receiving critical acclaim. Some of these people have never had a paid job, presumably funding uni and what has essentially become a hobby from the bank of mum and dad.

It goes without saying that if to get a foot in the door as a producer, director or stage manager you first have to work for free for a substantial period this is a significant barrier to having any diversity in this industry. It’s unsurprising that almost everyone I met working in fringe theatre was distinctly middle-class. This isn’t to say that these people aren’t working incredibly hard, but rather that it’s a problem that fringe theatre has become the preserve of those who can afford to play at having a job without ever needing to earn a salary.

There is often concern about actors not receiving a living wage – understandably, as they are the most prominent, and glamorous, members of a company. Yet at least they are being paid something; it’s rarely acknowledged, or at least not so prominently, that often nobody else in a company is being paid at all.

In the theatre that I interned in, everybody was working for free. For some this was a way to boost their CV, while also working freelance or holding down a day job. But the theatre ‘managers’ (of which I was one) also worked for free, and there was no chance of me taking paid work while I was frequently putting in ten hour days and six day weeks.

I worked (paid) all summer, only to see my savings swallowed up by train fares (this made no less depressing by the fact that this was what I’d designated them for – it being seemingly impossible to get a paid job in theatre without first working for free). And, despite saving, I was only able to consider internships in London (where the majority are centred) thanks to the fact that my parents live close enough to London for me to commute. What hope for those who live outside of the M25? It would be almost impossible to save enough doing menial jobs to cover living costs in London if you had to support yourself completely – and I honestly don’t think that a lot of these internships would be worth it.

At least I was doing something productive that could enhance my CV – the theatre is kept going by relying on unpaid ‘interns’ who effectively end up as unpaid cleaners and box office assistants. While for some this is a short-term chore that leads to contacts and opportunities, for others they leave weeks or months down the line in the same position they were in when they started, only significantly poorer.

People sometimes struggled to understand why I couldn’t provide them with interns to deliver leaflets, or to help them get out their set, when they weren’t even paying them expenses. In my experience, most people are more than willing to put in the hard graft if they feel that they are going to get something in return, or even if they just feel that their work will be appreciated, but instead it is expected that they should be willing to jump to any task as needed, however menial, and however short the notice, and be grateful for the opportunity. I would have thought it was blindingly obvious why people soon stopped volunteering themselves for these thankless tasks, but apparently not to some working in fringe theatres.

With funding cuts in the arts it seems unlikely that this situation will improve any time soon. However, unless there are paid entry-level jobs in the arts theatre will continue to become increasingly elite and removed from society.

American Psycho

The much-hyped (thanks to the presence of ex-Doctor Matt Smith) new musical American Psycho at the Almeida was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. I’m a big fan of quirky musicals and, although I didn’t know much about the book or the film I thought I’d give it a go. It turned out to be annoyingly inconsistent – with some intriguing parts, but leaving me a bit unsatisfied. Although not the fault of the musical, I also wasn’t impressed by the reveal about Patrick Bateman’s mental state at the end of the show, which somehow rendered the whole thing a bit pointless for me.

Matt Smith was ok as Patrick, a hard part to play, with a fine line between capturing the emotionless monster with a charming exterior and creating a character that people are bothered about watching. But I didn’t find him particularly engaging or scary and was left pretty unmoved by his serial murdering. In fact at times I almost forgot that he was a serial killer, a fact that for much of the musical seemed pretty inconsequential to the plot. As someone with a serious squeamishness about even the least gratuitous violence, I was at more than one point watching through half-closed eyes as Patrick prepared to kill his next victim. I needn’t have worried – the violence was so symbolic that even I wasn’t bothered by it.

Among the rest of the cast, Cassandra Compton stood out as Patrick’s secretary Jean. There’s a rare touching scene as Jean prepares to meet with Patrick, where I for the first time felt that he harboured any humanity beneath his blank exterior. I found the whole musical a bit soulless – which I guess is an occupational hazard when creating a musical based on a book that satirises the empty, vacuous lifestyles of American yuppies. In general it proved hard to care about the majority of the characters.

At points, as a scene became increasingly serious I would find it increasingly comical – I’m pretty sure this wasn’t intentional. There were some purposefully amusing moments but from the laughs these seemed to appeal largely to the posher elements of the audience.

Again I found the original score patchy – the opening number Clean is a bit grating and You Are What You Wear dragged. I was however a fan of Cards, and the show’s version of In The Air Tonight. The choreography was strong and I particularly liked the Christmas party tableaux created by various members of the cast.

Bret Easton Ellis says in the programme – ‘I think Patrick Batemans have existed throughout history’. This is probably true, and excessive consumerism has always been a characteristic of the social elite. How else to validate your social worth than with an elaborate sugar sculpture at your feast or a conspicuous excess of candles to light your ballroom?

Perhaps because the elite lifestyle is now so commonplace in everyday life – from television and magazines to the street full of designer stores that I walked down to reach the Almeida itself – I found the satirizing of the yuppie lifestyle in American Psycho a bit clunky. As chef Francis Derby points out in the programme, while in the eighties the fine dining of the characters may have seemed elite, ‘now everyone eats like that’. And it doesn’t seem at all unusual that a man would top up his tan. This consumer culture is ingrained in public consciousness, and large swathes of the population aspire to knock-off versions of elite cuisine and fashion. Elite cuisine and fashion that, despite increasing social inequality, is probably accessible to a wider section of the population than ever before.

In satirizing the yuppie lifestyle American Psycho doesn’t seem to say anything new, but merely points out some fairly obvious tenets about the negative effects of vacuous consumerism and social conformity. And yet, despite my reservations, the show did receive an enthusiastic standing ovation – so maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps if you’re in Doctor Who you get a standing ovation whatever you do.

The Importance of Performance

This weekend marks Lawrence Sterne’s 300th birthday, and to celebrate the Laurence Sterne Trust’s Good Humour Club put on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – adapted and performed by Stephen Oxley. It was a consummate performance with Oxley taking on many roles – Shandy, Uncle Toby, father, mother, maid  and many more – to great comedic effect. It’s a testament to Oxley’s performance that he managed to string Sterne’s rambling novel into a coherent and easy to follow production.

The show brought home to me the value of the performance of written works – especially when they were written in a different time or culture with the consequent obstacles to appreciating the meanings and nuances of the text on the page. This seems obvious in regards to plays, yet many people seem to have been put off Shakespeare for good by turgid lessons at school, and consequently miss out on the pleasures of a good Shakespeare production on stage.

However, hearing the words spoken aloud isn’t necessarily a beneficial experience. I’ve sat through a painfully dull and wordy Twelfth Night, but thankfully wasn’t put off from seeing the outstanding Globe production – a performance that was truly hilarious and needed no ‘education’ in the play or Shakespeare to enjoy. A director and performers who are passionate and educated about their material make even ‘challenging’ work surprisingly accessible and are invaluable for suggesting new interpretations and ideas to both knowledgeable audiences and newcomers.

While Gatz was quite a marathon (an eight-hour word-for-word rendering of The Great Gatsby onstage), lacking the leisurely pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby at your own pace and leaving me slightly sketchy on the finer points of the plot, Scott Shepherd’s obvious devotion to the book and his animated performance left me with a much greater appreciation of the language than I could have hoped to glean from simply reading the book myself.

The Tristram Shandy performance was equally revelatory. Although I enjoyed reading the novel it was perhaps more down to my love of the eighteenth century than a genuine literary appreciation of the book and I did find it a bit hard going. Stephen Oxley’s performance brought to life the humour in the novel and emphasised Sterne’s mastery of digression. With today marking the tercentenary of the birth of Laurence Sterne, Oxley and The Laurence Sterne Trust have provided me with a timely inspiration to reread Tristram Shandy, and I’m sure that having seen the performance the book will now make very different reading.

Northern Ballet’s Dream Production

Having recently finished Gillian Lynne’s atmospheric autobiography, A Dancer in Wartime, it seemed apt timing as last week I immersed myself in Northern Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – set around a 1940s touring production of Romeo and Juliet. This ‘ballet within a ballet’ also seems a fitting plot device for a company so committed to touring frequently and as widely as possible.

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 Lynne writes in her autobiography about the shortage of male dancers during the Second World War and the diversity of talent that this generated – dancers that weren’t technically brilliant but were consummate performers and exuded stage presence. Diversity is an ethos that Northern Ballet seems to embrace. They aren’t a cookie-cutter company, and each dancer brings something unique to their performances. The diversity of the company, and the strength of their ensemble, makes Northern Ballet productions alive with a character often lacking from companies such as the Royal Ballet.

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 A Midsummer Night’s Dream really allows the dancers to act – Act 1 features minimal dancing, with a strong emphasis on scene setting and storytelling (and even some dialogue). As I’ve come to expect from Northern Ballet productions, the David Nixon choreography was inventive, eloquent and witty.  A rehearsal video showing the dancers improvising dialogue, establishing the emotions and intentions of their characters, perhaps explains why Northern Ballet’s choreography is so articulate and its dancers so expressive.

 Kenneth Tindall and Martha Leebolt gave excellent performances as Lysander and Hermia, but Tobias Batley and Pippa Moore really stole the show as comedy double act Demetrius and Helena. Nicola Gervasi also brought a delightful mischievous energy to the role of Puck.

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Unfortunately I was sat in front of the kind of elderly audience members who give a stream of consciousness commentary to their lives. Before the performance started I was treated to a range of overheard pearls of wisdom: they were very concerned about the future state of one dancer’s hips as he performed some particularly impressive stretches, and I learnt that one apparent upside of Alzheimer’s is the ability to watch old productions with a fresh perspective.

Once the performance had started it did get rather wearing. The set was indeed ingenious, but comment could probably have waited until the interval. They particularly enjoyed the Act 2 ‘dream’ sequence – finding the underwear, cross-dressing and casual bestiality hilarious. I have to agree that while the whole ballet was strong, Act 2 stood out as a sublime mini-ballet in its own right. And by the interval the ballet had obviously grabbed the imagination of one little girl as she skipped and pirouetted down the aisle.

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 The general atmosphere was of energetic enthusiasm, and it clearly wasn’t a staid balletomane audience – we had to be repeatedly prompted to applaud the conductor at the start of each Act (I still don’t get why the orchestra gets a special round of applause just for making it to the theatre) – but there was much whooping and cheering at the curtain call.

 This is one of the strengths of Northern Ballet – its ability to attract regular loyal audiences but also to diversify away from the traditional ballet audience. Northern Ballet’s Dream is touring into 2014 and I’d highly recommend it!

Blue Stockings

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 Blue Stockings at the Globe focusses on the fight of a small but determined group of female Cambridge students, fighting for the right to graduate. In a break with the worryingly common response to Blue Stockings – disbelief that women could be treated so appallingly – I was genuinely surprised at quite how surprised even some well-educated people were at the position of women in the nineteenth century. I realise as a History graduate I’ve probably had access to a wider range of periods and topics than the standard Tudors, Victorians and World Wars that seem perennially prescribed by the National Curriculum. Yet I was still taken aback that people found the depictions in the play such a revelation.

 Jessica Swale’s play at the Globe is therefore hugely important in raising awareness of not just the plight of Cambridge students but of social inequality in general. While I’m glad that the general consensus is so vociferously against the misogynistic views of the nineteenth-century establishment, with audience boos, cheers and catcalling in the yard, the play should spark a serious debate about social inequality and its continued effects on our society. And from a historical standpoint, this means taking a step back from the initial outrage at these offensive views.

It’s anachronistic to impose contemporary moral standards onto a past society. While it can seem particularly distasteful to hear vehement misogyny in such a relatively recent period, it is surely more useful – and fairer on those we are judging – to try and understand these views within the context of their time. The play is set in 1896 – Victorian society and law had very different ideas about morality and the structure of society.  In 1831 a 14 year old boy was executed for murder, and in 1833 a nine year old was sentenced to death for housebreaking – although this was later reprieved under public pressure. Slavery was not abolished in Britain until 1833 and public executions continued until 1868.

 The position of women in general society puts the challenges women faced at Cambridge, serious as they are, into perspective. It was not until 1870 that women were allowed to be the legal owners of the money they earned and to inherit property. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that wives possessed a legal identity; previously courts didn’t recognize a wife as a separate legal entity to her husband.

 The play briefly touches on the Women’s Suffrage movement, and the complex political implications of political involvement on those campaigning for smaller victories. It was a long fight, and women didn’t receive the vote until 1918. Even then this was only for those over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications – it was not until 1928 that women received equal voting rights to men. Yet perhaps more surprisingly, and often overlooked, until 1918 forty per cent of adult males were also disenfranchised.

 There was clearly a large element of self-interest in the barring of female students from graduating, as with the withholding of universal suffrage and the amalgamation of a wife’s legal identity with that of her husband. The views these men espouse can seem ridiculous to our modern sensibilities, and were certainly often received with laughter by the audience of Blue Stockings, but it’s important to remember that many men (and women) will have genuinely believed that the mental taxation of study could be not only mentally but also physically damaging to women. If you believe this, and that women’s collective vocation is to be mothers and wives, then you probably think that you’re doing them a favour by discouraging them from studying.

And access to education has not always been seen as a right. Compulsory education was not introduced in Britain until 1880, and then only for children of five to ten years – and it was ineffectively enforced. The women with the education, talent and resources to make it to Cambridge were still privileged in comparison to the majority of the population.

 The general disparity in education continued well into the Twentieth Century, as the play’s final scene points out. Before the Second World War less than 2% of 18-year olds went to University. Oxford and Cambridge were still very much finishing schools for gentlemen. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise – real change did not begin until the 1970s.

And it’s also important to point out that the play is set in Cambridge, traditionally a bastion of the British Establishment. Conditions were better elsewhere in the country: if the women in Blue Stockings had wished, they could have graduated from the University of London, which in 1878 became the first UK University to admit women to its degrees. In 1881 two women obtained a BSc, by 1895 over 10 per cent of the graduates were women and by 1900 the proportion had increased to 30 per cent. As is the case today, not all universities were the same, and the situation in Cambridge, and the views of its inhabitants, do not necessarily reflect the country as a whole. In any society there will always be thinkers ahead of their time and those clinging desperately to the past, and the social elite that populated Cambridge have always tended towards conservatism.

Jessica Swale only alludes to some of the more violent protests against the bluestockings, which in real life included burning effigies of the female students. While the outright misogyny found in Blue Stockings is thankfully unacceptable in contemporary Britain, the example of Malala Yousafzai (to whom Blue Stockings is dedicated) serves as a reminder that for some the fight for a right to an education continues.

Closer to home, with the introduction of £9000 tuition fees, it seems as if the economic educational divide will grow. And it’s not just financial restrictions that affect your experience of university. Laura Wade’s Posh may be set in Oxford, but it demonstrates the rigid social hierarchy that still supports the upper echelons of our society. The play’s popularity demonstrates that our interest in the educational elite is as strong as ever.

And it seems that discrimination, of a subtler sort, is still hampering access to a Cambridge education – earlier this year it was reported that people applying to study medicine at Cambridge with three A*s at A-level are more than 20% more likely to be given an offer if they are white than if they are from an ethnic minority. On a personal note, studying History at University the majority of my peers were female. Looking at my tutors, the majority of teaching staff (and the vast majority of the older tutors) were men. It seems that in academia, as in so many areas of life, historical institutional sexism has left a noticeable legacy.

And the pay gap between men and women persists, with female law graduates, for instance, earning 28% less than men at the start of their careers.  Sitting in the audience at the Globe it is easy to feel smug, and to deride the ‘villains’ of Blue Stockings as antiquated relics of another era. But perhaps we should take a minute to look at our own society before we condemn theirs.