Imagine: Theatre of War

The first of Alan Yentob’s new Imagine series brings home the harsh realities of life as a soldier and the long-term impact that service can have on the members of our forces. The programme also demonstrates the effectiveness of theatre as a tool for personal recovery and for education of the audience. The Bravo 22 Company production of The Two Worlds of Charlie F shows us the possibilities of theatre and what can be achieved through determination and commitment. The project highlights many similarities between the “theatre of war” and the theatre; the discipline of rehearsals as they drill their performance, the need for teamwork and courage.

The performances are all the more moving as they are effectively re-enacting the experiences of the performers. Performers such as Dan Shaw who in 2009, aged 18, lost both his legs to an IED while on routine patrol. The eloquence of the soldiers as they recounted their experiences to writer Owen Sheers allowed him to create an evocative script which brings out professional yet authentic performances from the soldiers. Sheers describes how the project made him aware of the “simplicity of war”, and the “ageless” experience of its tragedies. It encapsulates the meaning of war and the levels of destruction it entails. One of the soldiers’ fiancée also describes her shock at the sheer numbers of injured soldiers returning from service.

The programme contains some very moving moments. Cassidy Little, who trained as a dancer before joining the military, admits that as a dance within the production is being choreographed it is the first time within the process that he has missed his foot. We gain an insight into the psychological impact of war as some of the soldiers struggle with drinking, aggression and violence. The soldiers’ circumstances also create unique problems during the creation of the production, as Sheers struggles with non-attendance, inexperience, injuries and medication. Despite their challenges the Bravo 22 Company staged a moving performance of The Two Worlds of Charlie F at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and the production is now touring and available to view online. It brings the experiences and tragedies of war dramatically to life, and is definitely worth a watch.

Northern Ballet’s Funding Success

As well as producing excellent ballets, Northern Ballet is a great example of how arts organisations can engage with audiences and develop their fundraising. The BBC2 documentary Arts Troubleshooter demonstrated the tough future that Northern Ballet (along with other arts organisations) faces, but also that it is rising to the challenge of funding cuts. The company had planned to reduce the number of dancers from 40 to 30 following a 15% Arts Council cut which left it with a £500,000 shortfall. However it has now announced that it has taken on two more dancers, meaning that the company now consists of 42 dancers, thanks to the Sponsor a Dancer campaign which has attracted both individual and corporate giving.

In May, Northern Ballet’s open day gave the public the opportunity to try dance, observe classes and performances, and attend interesting talks. While the event was under-publicised it was a fascinating insight into the company. Northern Ballet are consistently introducing new and interesting ways to engage with audiences. Over the summer Northern Ballet are opening their rehearsals for Ondine for public viewing, which will surely attract audiences to a ballet that is perhaps less commercial than some. As well as offering opportunities for people to learn about the company and attracting new audiences for its performances, by engaging the public it’s securing its position within the community. If people are interested in Northern Ballet and are familiar with its building and company they are far more likely to donate to ensure its survival.

The government has suggested that philanthropy should make up the deficit left by funding cuts. Northern Ballet’s funding success has demonstrated not only its tenacity in developing its fundraising programme but also the value that the public put on this company. Yet Mark Skipper, chief executive of Northern Ballet, points out that as more and more arts organisations compete for people’s money, relying on fundraising is a risky long-term strategy. Arts and Business, a body aiming to stimulate private investment, suggests that investment by business in the arts is at its lowest level in seven years. Northern Ballet strives to produce quality productions and tour them to provide access to as wide an audience as possible, even when this is not commercially viable. This can only benefit the nation, and philanthropy should complement government subsidy rather than replace it if this is to continue.


Loserville is the new musical opening at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, created by Elliot Davis and James Bourne (of Busted and Son of Dork). Set in 1971, it tells the story of computer geek Michael Dork as he sets out to crack communication between computers while falling in love.

The show has an interesting aesthetic, with a metal frame set complemented by boards carried by the ensemble. While distracting at first, this technique was often used effectively to represent everything from a house to a QWERTY keyboard. All the cast gave enthusiastic performances, but while Gareth Gates’ casting has been used to pull in audiences it is Aaron Sidwell as Michael, Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly and Lil’ Chris as Francis whose performances stand out.

The production aims at a wide target audience, from teenage fans of Gareth Gates to those who remember the ‘70s, and the night I went there was a variety of people in the audience. While the musical would be entertaining enough for anyone I think that it will probably be most appreciated by those who were a fan of the Busted/ Son of Dork music of the early noughties. You can certainly tell that the music is by an ex-member of Busted, and roughly half of the songs are taken from the album Welcome to Loserville by Bourne’s band Son of Dork. While cheesy the songs are easy to listen to, and have been growing on me since I saw it (partly due to the fact that I haven’t been able to get them out of my head for the last couple of days).

This is Bourne’s first venture into writing for theatre, accompanied by veteran Davis, and while Loserville is not ground-breaking it has a certain charm about it. I only saw this at a preview, but it definitely has potential.

Still in the Best Possible Taste

The upper class are fraying at the edges; as Grayson Perry this week looks at upper-class taste, he discovers that its major components are age and dishevelment. The reasons for this are manifold. As Lady Bathurst points out when asked to identify which car belonged to the poshest person, “the posher the person, the less they have to prove”. Yet the Cliffords ascribe their shabbiness to inverted snobbery – it’s cool to wear their parents’ and grandparents’ clothes. Furthermore, they have been brought up with ideas of responsibility to their family, their taste an ancestral legacy. Unlike the middle classes of last week’s programme, the upper class seem to be less focussed on what others think of their taste and more concerned with preserving what they’ve inherited.

To counter these demands of inherited taste, Charles Berkley and his young family have moved to a (still quite grand) house on their estate rather than live in the ancestral pile. Here they can implement their own taste, rather than have that of their ancestors forced upon them. More drastically, the 7th Marquess of Bath has rebelled against upper-class taste by covering one wing of his house in his own, quite gaudy, artwork. He describes himself as part of the bohemian set, and Perry also visits Detmar Blow, an art connoisseur who clearly identifies himself as belonging to this group. He “wants the beauty”, and has surrounded himself by art and artists. Yet Perry suggests that this idea of “bohemia” is in itself nostalgic, harking back to a rose-tinted 1920s ideal.

The family at Chavenage House demonstrate that shabby chic can be a necessity rather than a style choice; they ration hot water but it still costs £80,000 a year to run their home. The daughter suggests that in 100 years very few country houses will still contain the same families as they do now. They will perhaps be filled with people like Lisa Maxwell from The Bill, who we see renovating one of these houses. She is making drastic changes to the house, knocking down walls, and seems completely bewildered at the fact that the previous owners didn’t have a telly. While I’m not sure I agree with her idea of attaching a large glass cube to the rear of the building, it seems that increasingly it will be people like Lisa who are owning and renovating these large houses.

Perry meets historian Amanda Vickery, who describes how the eighteenth-century upper class didn’t mind adopting new money into their class to sustain their wealth, and used taste as a direct statement of their money and power. While the Georgian aristocracy had the resources to complete grand redecoration projects, a large part of the modern upper class are struggling just to maintain their houses. It seems that as the upper class preserve the ancient decoration in their houses they are not only trying to honour their ancestors’ taste but also to recapture a little of the aristocracy’s glory years.

West End on Film

The BBC 4 documentary London on Film is a compilation of fascinating archive footage of London spanning 100 years, giving an intriguing insight into London across the eras. The first episode focuses on the West End and features evocative footage alongside that of more mundane scenes. We see Covent Garden when it was still packed with fruit and veg, and an array of beautiful period clothes. There is black and white footage of men cleaning the Underground ventilation shafts, alongside a clip from a time when bin men still collected rubbish by horse and cart. An interview with a market stall trader reveals a supreme confidence in his selling abilities that would rival any modern Apprentice candidate.

There is also an article on the introduction of parking meters and traffic wardens to the West End: “it’s all going to be done courteously, no slanging matches, just say ‘what awful weather we’re having, sir’ and fine him £2”. The archive narration is perhaps more entertaining than the footage itself; while modern voiceovers can grate and seem unnecessary distractions, this older commentary is only improved by the RP delivery. I would find many modern documentaries far more entertaining if they were accompanied by an old-fashioned BBC-style narration.

The documentary moves on to Soho: “life after dark with an enamel gloss and the cracks showing – garish, gay, avaricious and a little sleazy at the edges”. We meet a posh stripper, just back from Morocco with her boyfriend. She is a source of some rather bizarre quotes: “for me [stripping] is just the same as standing on stage and singing the Schubert Lieder like I used to when I was in the convent”. We explore the entertainment of the West End, from clubs to cinemas and theatres. There is a particularly incongruous interview where the brilliance of rapping is discussed by men in suits with cut glass accents.

Clips featuring protests and riots merge together, from charwomen seeking an extra thruppence three farthings, via the Vietnam War and Poll Tax Riots, to football hooliganism; this reflects the effect of the film as a whole in bringing out continuities across the period. While the programme flits from one topic to another it continually demonstrates the timeless qualities of the West End, and of life in general.

Celebrity Casting

Increasingly, it seems that star names are requisite for a sell-out show. I’m not against this per se; often actors are famous because of their stand-out talent, and many have spent years working solidly in relative obscurity, honing their craft, before a break-out role in TV or film catapults them to household-name status. Yet at times you do feel that a celebrity with little experience (and sometimes little talent) has landed a role for the sole benefit of ticket sales, with little consideration of artistic merit.

Sarah Green’s article on celebrity casting in Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates the debate surrounding this phenomenon. While I can understand people’s frustration at the casting of Chris Moyles as Herod, Michael Grandage’s new season at the Noël Coward Theatre is a brilliant example of star casting that will not only draw crowds but also promises excellent performances. Judi Dench, Jude Law and Daniel Radcliffe (alongside Simon Russell Beale, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Ben Wishaw) not only have star appeal but have proven themselves as accomplished performers.

Aside from the obvious draw of being able to see your favourite celebrity in the flesh, familiar faces in a production are reassuring. When people are strapped for cash, they don’t want to take a risk with the £50 they might be shelling out for a ticket. People are drawn to what they know, and as few people are familiar with many playwrights or directors, unless you’re staging Romeo and Juliet or a film/book spin-off it makes commercial sense to try and attract a familiar name for your cast.

If someone I know and like is in a production, whether famous or not, it does encourage me to see it. It’s natural to want to minimise the risk of wasting your money on a production you don’t enjoy, especially if you’re booking tickets before it’s even opened. The reason I see every National Theatre production that I can is that I have never seen a poor performance there; the consistent excellence of the National’s productions gives me the confidence to try new plays which I might otherwise have bypassed (although the amazing Entry Pass scheme with £5 tickets for under-26s also helps!). Just as the National is a guarantor of quality productions, the same can be said for some actors. If David Tennant or Judi Dench is in a production I feel assured that it will be quality; I trust their judgement in accepting a project and their ability to deliver an outstanding performance. Equally, this is why I would always make an effort to see a play directed by Jamie Lloyd or written by Lee Hall.

It is clear that for this to work on a large scale the key is to attract big name actors. Josie Rourke is a talented director and I’m sure that she could have created an amazing production with an unknown cast, yet it’s obvious that much of the box-office success of last year’s Much Ado About Nothing rested on the appeal of David Tennant and Catherine Tate. I would in no way wish to detract from their performances, as both were outstanding. Tennant in particular shone as Benedick and has an extraordinary affinity with the language; he is the most intelligible speaker of Shakespeare I have ever seen and breaks down the barriers to understanding that the language often produces. The rest of the cast, and the production, were excellent. But there’s no doubt that many in the audience had come to see Dr Who and his companion. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and it’s an integral part of developing and sustaining audiences, but I did find the mass exodus before the ovations as people rushed for a front-line spot outside the stage door rude.

Finally, big name casting can be a useful tool for an actor who wants to avoid typecasting. Daniel Radcliffe’s appearance in Equus was a savvy career move, breaking the Harry Potter mould and demonstrating his versatility, as well as hopefully encouraging new theatregoers. More recently, Katherine Kelly’s excellent performance in She Stoops to Conquer has demonstrated her theatrical capabilities after a long stint in Coronation Street.

But the biggest benefit of celebrity casting continues to be its potential to attract audiences and increase ticket sales. The large number of £10 tickets available for the Grandage season is a testament to theatre’s desire to widen access and develop audiences.

Frankenstein, and National Theatre Live

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to see both versions of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, with both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, and as Frankenstein. Yesterday I took the opportunity to catch Cumberbatch as the Creature again, at a National Theatre Live screening. The production was excellent, with Cumberbatch standing out as the Creature (as he did as Frankenstein). Cumberbatch has carved a niche for himself as the go-to actor for posh and emotionally repressed (Sherlock, David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance, and soon to be Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End). But as the Creature Cumberbatch shows his versatility and physicality. Cumberbatch commands attention, even though for a substantial part of the first half he doesn’t speak.

Jonny Lee Miller and Naomie Harris give excellent performances but Cumberbatch as the Creature sustains the production. While initially the Creature embodies the joys of living Cumberbatch goes on to capture the increasing despair of a lonely man, abandoned by his creator and rejected by society, his humanity and kindness destroyed by successive confrontations with the world.

At the start the camera was inclined to zoom around and over the stage, but once it settled down the showing was almost as good as the theatre, capturing the atmosphere as closely as possible. As with the showing of She Stoops To Conquer I attended (which featured videos on the play’s costumes as well as an interview with director Jamie Lloyd) the screening featured an interesting video discussing the production.

NTLive is an excellent way to reach out to new audiences, both in the UK and abroad. These screenings are accessible to those not able to reach London and developing new audiences at NTLive can only be beneficial for ticket sales at the National Theatre itself. Recording these performances also preserves them for posterity and allows further showings such as the current screenings of Frankenstein. The screening may also have been beneficial for the two girls I was sitting next to, who were holding hands and hyperventilating at the sheer anticipation of Cumberbatch’s appearance on screen. Who knows how they would have coped with the prospect of seeing him on stage in person?!

Other companies are following the National Theatre’s example, with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of King Lear being broadcast as part of NTLive last year. The Royal Opera House also has a live cinema season. The increasing tendency for organisations to broadcast their live performances can only be a good thing as it broadens access to, and encourages engagement with, audiences.