Miss Saigon

Listening to the Miss Saigon gala performance on Radio 2, I was reminded of the genius of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical. It’s less than a month since I day queued on a (thankfully mild) December morning, getting seats in Row A of the Stalls, and the recording brought back great memories. But, perhaps because it’s sung-through, it also translated perfectly to radio in its own right, just as the iconic songs stand on their own merit.

Like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon is an epic musical set against the background of a turbulent period in history. And like Les Mis, Miss Saigon focuses not on the grand historical perspective but examines the impact of these events on the personal lives of people involved. While never overtly political, Miss Saigon has a lot to say about American culture as well as the tragedy of war. Coming hot on the heels of the war of resistance against the French, when Vietnam was part of Indochina, the Vietnamese suffered three decades of continuous war in their country. Miss Saigon captures the disruptive impact of a war on every citizen of the country where it is fought.

The cast boasts a wealth of talent. Understudy Niall Sheehy gave a good performance as Chris, but he was dwarfed by the vocal talents and charisma of Eva Noblezada as Kim who, along with Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, was the standout star of the show. Poor, Vietnamese and a woman, Kim has arguably the least agency of any of the main characters. Along with the other bar girls she has very few options. Yet her (slightly naïve) faith in Chris and her determination to provide her son with a better life give her strength to fight against her situation and survive the war. Noblezada brings both a naivety and a steely determination to the role.

Though unlikely to become a poster boy for the ideal, the Engineer embodies the American Dream and his spirit of entrepreneurialism would surely have seen him prosper if he had found himself born in America. Briones, who played the role in the original West End cast, brings humanity to a man who has learned the only way to survive in turbulent times is to play the game. His morals are questionable but you find yourself feeling for this man who always finds the elusive American Dream just out of his reach. He both demonstrates the overwhelming power of the Dream in giving hope to the downtrodden and gives the lie to the idea of meaningful social mobility for the majority of the world’s population.

Nowadays Vietnam War has perhaps slipped from public consciousness, at least in the UK, with a younger generation who know very little about it. But you don’t have to have any knowledge of the history to appreciate the musical – as the adaptation of the plot from Madame Butterfly demonstrates, Miss Saigon deals with universal themes. The impact of war, cultural difference, personal courage and cowardice are all as relevant today as they have ever been.

When the helicopter comes to evacuate Saigon, both Americans and Vietnamese are swept up in events beyond their own control – it is purely an accident of birth that the Americans are being airlifted to safety while the Vietnamese are left to suffer.

Chris’s ignorance of Vietnamese customs and his and his wife’s inability to comprehend Kim’s desire for a new life for her son are symptomatic of the cultural gulf between the two worlds that have been thrown together. His broken promises, social strictures and his inability to understand Kim’s culture have disastrous consequences – echoing the unintended repercussions of many Western interventions.

Miss Saigon is not only a rousing musical filled with iconic songs but also a fascinating social commentary exploring universal themes.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The problem with audience awards…

On The Culture Show this week Mark Kermode tried to redress the glaring omissions in the Oscar nominations by presenting his own personal awards, the Kermodes, which demonstrated the array of outstanding films that the Academy fails to recognise each year. The Academy Awards may favour certain films, but at least with awards like the Oscars or the Baftas you can hope that not only are the voters fairly knowledgeable about films, they’ve also seen quite a few – and hopefully the ones that they are judging.

Audience awards such as the National Television Awards, and last week’s WhatsOnStage.com Awards, throw up a whole new array of problems. I accept that I can’t complain if these forays into viewer democracy come up with the wrong result. Although I think it’s a travesty that Downton Abbey beat both Sherlock and Doctor Who to Most Popular Drama, or that Colin Morgan (who I do think is a good actor) beat Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith to Most Popular Drama Performance, evidently they are the most popular – at least amongst the demographic that votes for the NTAs. The fact that there are a plethora of awards for programmes that I don’t watch – from daytime TV to soaps – leads me to think that I’m not typical of the average voter. We do need a balance when it comes to awarding recognition; awards voted for by experts are hardly representative of the country’s taste as a whole.

As a regular theatre-goer, I take more of an interest in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards, although again I often disagree with the results – I appreciate that there must be something about Wicked that audiences love, as it’s (to me inexplicably) nearly always ahead of the pack when it comes to audience awards for best musical or West End show. But what annoys me the most about audience awards for theatre is the fact that most voters won’t have seen most of the productions nominated. I go to the theatre more regularly than most, but I’ve seen less than half of the productions nominated. Productions from smaller venues suffer as they struggle to muster enough votes to beat productions that are playing to thousand-strong audiences every night.

Aside from the fact that people haven’t seen most of the productions, the obvious domination of the awards by famous nominees suggests that people really do just vote for what they know. Stephen Fry was excellent in Twelfth Night, and a worthy winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Play, but he didn’t stand so far ahead of his peers that he deserved half of the vote (49.3%) in a strong field. The rest of the nominees’ votes can be marked pretty much according to their fame; from Mark Gatiss (19.7%) to Kyle Soller (5.3%). I can’t judge, because I haven’t seen Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I’m sure Soller would have been an equally worthy winner – and had people known who he was he might have been.

The tendency for audiences to vote for what they know must surely have played a role in deciding the recipient of Best New Musical – how else would Loserville have secured nearly a quarter of the vote, only slightly behind Top Hat and The Bodyguard. And again, I’m sure Sweet Smell of Success and Soho Cinders were hampered by their small venues.

Having said all this, I do think audience awards should have a place alongside traditional awards – and I don’t have any answers on how to solve their problems. They’re inherent to democracy, and replicated in all its forms, right up to Parliamentary elections. This year there was one benefit to the susceptibility of audience to be led by external forces. Presumably thanks to its celluloid reincarnation, Les Mis beat Wicked to win Best West End Show with over a quarter of the vote. But maybe Wicked’s star is just on the wane – it was beaten down into third place by the excellent Matilda the Musical.

Stage v. Screen

A while ago I got into a heated debate with a film buff about the respective merits of stage and screen. He claimed that there was nothing you could produce on stage that wouldn’t be better in a film. As an avid theatre fan, I couldn’t let that go… Don’t get me wrong, I think that TV and film are great and offer opportunities to portray things differently than in the theatre. But theatre, although not better than television or film, is a unique and relevant medium.

There are obvious constraints generated when locating a performance on stage, live and without the benefit of editing, but writing for the stage need not restrict what you can portray. Ghost the Musical demonstrates the amazing possibilities for stage effects, with ghost Sam walking through a wall on stage. Similarly, Danton’s Death at the National Theatre had a breathtakingly realistic guillotine scene which was so effective that it was almost distracting as I struggled to spot how it was done.

While there is plenty of inventive television and film, the unique conditions of the stage often require more imagination, from both audience and creators. I find it amazing how easy it is when watching a great production to suspend my disbelief and immerse myself in the narrative, often with minimal set or props. The ingenuity of theatre-makers is nowhere better exemplified than by the National Theatre production of War Horse. Although the Spielberg film had real horses, trenches, and spectacular views of the English countryside, it wasn’t able to capture the emotion or atmosphere of the play. The horse puppets are extraordinary and are operated so skilfully that you believe they are real, and the beautiful backdrop of illustrations creates an amazing atmosphere.

The Woman in Black is another film which I enjoyed, with Daniel Radcliffe giving an engaging performance which retained my interest despite the horror narrative being little more than a series of things that make you jump. But again, I feel that the stage production (as well as being more true to the book) has an atmosphere that can only be achieved in the theatre. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, as two actors narrate and act out the entire plot through a clever conceit involving Kipps enlisting a young actor to help him to recount his story.  Despite the lack of props and cast members, the play is scary in a way that the film wasn’t, with the proximity of the performance adding to the tension. The idea of a haunted theatre is much scarier when you’re sitting in the auditorium…

Aside from the practical considerations, theatrical performances create a unique shared experience between audience and performers. One of the joys of theatre is that a show is different each time, as actors play with their performance and react to the audience response.

Bearing all this is mind, I’m still looking forward to seeing the new film adaptation of Les Mis. I didn’t hold particularly high hopes for the film when they announced the array of famous actors (less famous for their singing) in the cast, although many of them have had experience in musical theatre. But it seems to have held its own with the critics – and certainly done rather better critically than the musical did when it first opened. As a fan of the stage version, and a big fan of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, I’ll be interested to see how the story and score transfer to the screen.