Summertime blues: A little Night Music at Ye Olde Rose and Crown

Sunday 11th October 2015, matinée

All Star Productions at ‘Ye Olde Rose and Crown’ in Walthamstow are certainly helping us to get acquainted with Stephen Sondheim’s back catalogue, following an ambitious staging of Into the Woods last year with ‘A Little Night Music’.  Tim McArthur returns to direct, with regular musical director Aaron Clingham.  We’ve never thought of it before, but in many ways, the combination of Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim is a marriage made in heaven – the Scandinavian gloom is perfect fodder for Sondheim’s mordant style.  Based on Bergman’s film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, which also provided the source material for Woody Allen’s ‘Midsummer Night’s sex comedy’, the plot is surprisingly comedic, with a relatively happy ending.  But let’s not confuse a lighthearted tone with an uplifting one – here is the enjoyment is strictly the cruel one of revelling in human folly, as a series of mismatched couples are rearranged into slightly less unsatisfactory pairings.

The plot gives us an intricate web of interlocking love triangles, with each participant hopelessly self-obsessed.  Played out over a midsummer weekend where even the refusal of the sun to set on the longest day is a source of frustration, in all senses, Hugh Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics are at their best when forensically dissecting the darkest of human emotions.  Don’t be fooled by ‘Send in the Clowns’, the songs go to some pretty dark, mostly misogynist places.  We have Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged husband who is trying to work out how to get his virginal young wife to sleep with him; the pompous count Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm whose song ‘In Praise of Women’ is distinctly praise of the faint kind; and the deliciously wicked ‘wonderful’ in which both of them bemoan in different ways the perfection of their shared mistress, actress Desiree Armfeldt, wishing she had been ‘jaded’, ‘fat’ or even ‘dead’.  Even the vaguely romantic ‘remember’ has a sting in the tale as it trails off with ‘I think it was you’.  Of course all of this is wrapped up in some of them most exquisite melodies and the genius of the different pairings is a delight, particularly the trio of Fredrik, his wife and son ‘Now/soon/later’, and the duet between the wives ‘Every day a little death’, not to mention the bitter-sweet ‘You must meet my wife’.

The cast is a strong one.  As Desiree Armfeldt, Sarah Wadell, last seen by us as Jack (and the beanstalk’s) mother in Into the Woods, couldn’t be more different, with a ditzy self-deprecating charm and genuine sense of farce (yes, she does have to sing ‘that song’) which brings some warmth to the bed-hopping antics.  As the count, Samuel Baker is absolutely bristling with pomposity, but just dashing enough for us to believe he might have been a bit of a catch once.  Jamie Birkett as his long-suffering wife Charlotte has a gift for comedy, showing us a character, who though apparently bitter and deeply unhappy, is also a glutton for punishment, feeding on her own misery – and she has a lovely singing voice. As Fredrik Egerman, Alexander McMorran perfectly captures that passivity and indecisiveness that wreaks havoc whilst allowing the person responsible to remain apparently innocent and oblivious.  With a nice touch of humour and frankness, he somehow gets away with it.  Joshua Considine as the tortured step-son Henryk gives a subtle, layered performance. Desperate to appear profound, his journey towards the moment when he discovers the joys of being with a total air-head is a delight to watch.  Of course all the women are either frigid or nymphomaniacs, and as the maid Jodie Beth Meyer certainly provides a burst of energy with her song which is a purely sexual interpretation of the motto ‘seize the day’.

The direction is slick and stylish, but bizarrely, considering it is such a small space, the ‘boudoir’ at the back seemed too far away at times, and we would have preferred to have the characters a bit freer to move to centre stage – the lyrics of Fredrik’s first song were drowned out by the musicians.  Overall, though, this was a highly enjoyable and musically rich production, which brought out much of the humour, darkness and sheer silliness of the piece.

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The mother of all indigestion: Dinner with Saddam at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Saturday 19th September 2015, matinée

It’s not very often that you hear the words ‘Farce’, ‘Saddam Hussein’ and ‘Steven Berkoff’ in the same sentence, but in his new play ‘Dinner with Saddam’, premiering at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that is exactly what Anthony Horowitz promises to serve up.  As long term fans of farce and Berkoff (but not Saddam), our interest was piqued.

This is a subject close to Horowitz’s heart, according to interviews he gave last year.  He has always wanted to write about Iraq, and this play was inspired by reports that Saddam Hussein used to drop in on private homes unannounced for fear of assassination attempts. At this point, we have to give credit where credit is due – this is far from obvious as an artistic choice, combining as it does all the clichés of the British drawing room comedy with the horror of welcoming the notorious Iraqi dictator as a dinner guest.  Based on the premise that comedy is the only route to explore the humanity of the situation, the play is an anarchic mix of slapstick, scatology, political debate and dark deeds.

We begin with an ordinary family containing all the staple characters of a sit-com: the put-upon lazy husband, the nagging wife, the rebellious and perky daughter, whose lover is stashed upstairs disguised as a plumber, and the odious would-be son-in-law.
There is an awful lot of well-worn comedy here, but Sanjeev Bhaskar breathes life into the routines, with some of our favourite moments including a hilarious (and surprisingly successful) attempt to get into an overly tight suit, with the inevitable consequences, and a wonderful marrying of horror and domestic bickering when he turns a spade on one of the characters, only to be berated by his wife for buying cheap tools when it breaks.  His delivery of the more madcap moments is enjoyable, but not sufficient to save the show from sinking into a bizarre grey space between true black comedy and serious political commentary.

We don’t think we have ever seen farce based on a real person, and perhaps this is part of the problem.  Ultimately, the play’s unique selling point seems to be its downfall, as it can’t decide whether to mock Hussein or humanise him by giving him a platform.  The result doesn’t gel – we can’t believe we are saying this given the premise, but Horowitz needed to be both bolder and more subtle.  For a play which wanted to highlight the horrors of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and show solidarity with the ordinary people, none of the characters are very likeable, except perhaps the naive and idealistic daughter.  Fair enough, the idea is to be satirical and poke fun at everyone equally, but whereas in a British context, this works because very often we are mocking the self-satisfied and privileged, here there is an uncomfortable undercurrent of mocking the ‘other’.  And it is not the satisfying discomfort that comes from well-written and challenging drama, but the growing sense that this playwright is out of his depth.

And what did we think about Berkoff, that unique actor, writer and director who has frequently funded his innovative projects by playing cardboard baddies in Hollywood?  He was too constrained by script and character for his talents to show through.  It only made us wonder what he might have made of Saddam if he had been writing his own material.

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Everyone’s a critic: preview reviews are in for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Two of our favourite topics collided this week in the ‘outrage’ at newspapers publishing early reviews of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.  Yes, it’s the circular argument about whether it’s OK to review a preview, of which we have already written, and celebrity casting, which more or less pervades this blog, whose inspiration was an intense frustration with casting shows and celebrity casting.  And of course the two are intimately linked, because there is little incentive for newspapers to offer a sneak preview of a show few people are interested in, and this level of ‘buzz’ is the result of Cumberbatch’s celebrity above all else.

The Times and Daily Mail were the first to pop their heads above the parapet, to a storm of outrage. Samuel West kicks off with a tweet full of dignified and barely contained disgust –

“Really shoddy journalism for the Times to review the first preview of Hamlet. Breaks all boundaries of protocol, taste and art. Bad form.”

Really?  Yes, it breaks a protocol based on critics getting free tickets, which obviously didn’t happen here.  Where is the problem with ‘taste’ and ‘art’, though?

There there is Eddie Marsan with his suggestion that –

“Kate Maltby at the Times, in same spirit as your review of Benedict’s Hamlet 3 weeks early, let us see & judge 1st drafts of your articles.”

Well, the really ironic thing about this (apart from the fact that an army of scholars have already done that very thing with Shakespeare’s work) is that if Benedict Cumberbatch were to become a great legend of theatre, no doubt many future theatre enthusiasts who never got the chance to see him would love to have some material which might show how his performance evolved over time, just as great writers often end up donating their first drafts to museums.  So Kate should really be quite flattered.

According to her, the paper had got wind of a deal that had been done with another prominent paper to allow early access in return for favourable reviews.  That wouldn’t surprise us in the slightest – Andrew Lloyd Webber did the same with the Wizard of Oz after his bruising experiences with ‘Love Never Dies’.  It would certainly explain the absence of comment from key players such as Sonia Friedman, the producer of the show.

But those who are upset on behalf of Cumberbatch are stuck in a paradox.  If they believe that he doesn’t deserve to be reviewed on opening night, that seems to suggest that if he wasn’t very good, another 19 previews (yes, you heard us, 19) will be enough for him to transform himself into a great actor by opening night.  The man is 39 years old.  If he is not ready to play Hamlet, he is not ready.  Except that in Cumberbatch’s case, the readiness has everything to do with his celebrity, and little to do with his maturity as a stage actor.  He can’t afford to wait – this level of popularity is unlikely to last forever.

What we’re really struggling to find here is victims, or people who need to be defended. Mark Shenton puts up a good fight for the critical establishment and points out that some of the critics sent in were inexperienced.  We hardly think these ‘reviews’ were ever meant to be part of the usual canon of theatre criticism.  The Daily Mail’s is listed under ‘news’, along with extensive coverage of the ‘story’, for example fans queuing up overnight for day tickets.  Many of them take time to review the audience (and to report the audience’s reception) as well as the show, and include embedded videos and tweets.  And let’s not forget, many papers such as the Telegraph have links to ticket agents, witness a link at the bottom of every article of theirs inviting readers to see the play in a ‘dinner and theatre deal’ of a mere £289 (and that includes an article about how the Barbican plans to crack down on touts!)  This is an ‘event’, and it is the gift that keeps on giving – the fact that twitter can’t shut up about it should surely reassure us that there will be room for everyone, including the ‘serious critics’.  The show is critic-proof anyway, and if some of the comments are a little wounding, would it be any better if they’d come 19 days later?

What we have here is a clash of new and old, and an understandable desire to have the advantages of both.  Samuel West speaks of protocol and taste.  Yet, it is quite obvious that Cumberbatch jumped the queue because of his TV celebrity.  He is quite happy to use TV fame to his advantage by bagging a prestigious theatrical role.  Many actors now claim TV fame is a pre-requisite for getting leading roles.  However, look at this plea to his fans, whom he wants to ‘recruit’ in a campaign to stop audiences filming the performance with their mobile phones.  Just to be clear, we don’t approve of filming.  But what strikes us here is that the Barbican front of house seems helpless in the face of it.  They can’t seem to see any way of enforcing the rule without draconian measures (despite warnings that bag searches are in operation).  When the protocols about theatrical reviews were written (or unwritten) the idea of the lead actor coming out to talk to fans in this way and literally pleading with them not to film because it makes his job so difficult and stressful would have been preposterous.  Professionalism on the stage, for better or worse, is about ignoring distractions.  What would critics of the old school have made of this, we wonder? Management must surely have realised fans would want to capture his every move on camera, and that is part of the deal when you bring your fans with you into the theatre. And what is the point of getting annoyed at the papers publishing reviews when the leading actor himself is seen publicly complaining about all the ‘problems’ that have occurred, with new stories emerging of swearing and ranting both on and off stage.  You can’t have it both ways.

The reviewing landscape changed forever with the internet and insisting on a protocol that existed when word of mouth was literally that, compared with a time when audience opinions can be replicated in an instant online and on twitter isn’t really helping.  How ironic, indeed, that these defenders of tradition are using modern technology to do it. Producers are more than happy to make use of gushing audience feedback on twitter and via embedded videos.  John Tiffany in the Guardian makes a plea for privacy during previews and claims that they are frequently used to make major changes. But, as we have blogged before, the mechanism for this process remains strangely mysterious.  The day we attend a preview and are given a little questionnaire to fill out, or are asked to stay afterwards to give some post-show feedback, is the day we will take these arguments seriously.  Kate Maltby was giving some quite useful, if public, feedback in her review – will it be heeded?  Somehow we think not.

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Grand Hotel at the Southwark Playhouse: somebody check us out of here

Saturday 1st August 2015, matinée

Seeing Maury Yeston’s name on the advert for Grand Hotel, the latest production at the Southwark Playhouse, piqued our interest, even though in this case he was providing additional music and lyrics to supplement George Forrest and Robert Wright’s original score.  We booked our tickets and looked forward to finding out why this show won five Tony awards when it premiered on Broadway.

This was meant to be a review of that show, but as it’s going to be almost impossible to give the show and cast a fair account, we’ll just have to try to explain what happened.

How is it possible, we wonder, to be in the front row in a small theatre facing the stage and yet see only a fraction of the action, miss major parts of the story, and end up with severe neck strain from the constant craning in an attempt to see the whole stage at once.  Were we struck down by some kind of physical impairment?  No, the answer is traverse staging. For the uninitiated, traverse staging consists of putting all the seating on two sides in mirror image formation, with the playing area in the middle.  And if, dear reader, you are growing tired of our rants about this most hubristic of seating formations, don’t blame us.  We still can’t believe directors think it is a good idea.  And here, we have to hand it to Thom Southerland for providing us with the worst example of its kind we have ever seen (or should we say almost seen).  Some past productions have provided a little relief by having small areas at either end where an audience can rest their weary eyes for a moment, but here, we have extreme traversity, with what must be the narrowest and longest strip of ‘stage’ possible.  The most frustrating aspect of the experience for us was that we felt there was something good in there trying to get out, but mostly we just felt emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, and not in a good way.  All we have left is questions.

How can we describe it? Well, it’s a bit like the five stages of grieving, which can of course be applied in all sorts of ways. In this case grief at the sight of so much talent being wasted.

1)  Denial.  Despite arriving with plenty of time to spare, we were more or less at the end of the queue for unreserved seats, leaving us in the worst possible seats with time to ponder what was to come.  A bit like that moment when you realise you’ve left your wallet on the bus as you watch it pulling away.  Of course we tried to cheer ourselves up.  Yes, we’d seen countless failures on the altar of the traverse, but this is Thom Southerland.  He wouldn’t choose this layout without a good reason.  Perhaps the seats will magically pull back to reveal an actual stage area.  Ah well, we can dream.

2)  Anger.  It didn’t take long for the irritation to reach boiling point as we sat through what is starting to become standard issue choreography for traverse staging.  First the cast march past us from right to left; then they march backwards from left to right; then they split into two and march from each end, jostling each other like rush-hour commuters in the middle.  Then there is the wearisome sensation of disembodied singing, and the game of trying to guess which mouth it is emanating from by studying the backs of people’s heads.  And then, just as you have a clear view of an actor’s face, they are blocked by the back of someone else’s head.  And just to add insult to injury, clouds of dry ice were pumped into the theatre at inopportune moments.

3)  Bargaining.  We’re here, we really need to make the best of it.  And there are plenty of opportunities for distraction.  Playing the well-known ‘which haircut would suit me?’ game, and then there is that great so-called advantage of the traverse form – you get a great view of the audience on the other side.  We could observe the bewildering variety of awkward body posture on show as people tried to get a good view without crippling themselves.  And we could definitely see signs of people enjoying the show less than us – the fixed stare at the ceiling is a good example.

4)  Depression.  In the end it was just too much.  A procession of disembodied vocal talent and glimpses of dance ability we just couldn’t see.  Suddenly we were indulging in fond memories of that production of ‘Trojan Women’.  At one point, we were within reach of a prop gun tucked into the waistband of one of the actors and the temptation to go out in a blaze of glory was almost overwhelming.

5)  Acceptance.  We never quite got to this stage but we’re working on it.

All we can say is the whilst Southerland ruined our afternoon, we’re not sure he ruined a classic of Musical Theatre.  The book is disjointed, the characters mostly unlikeable, and a few good songs don’t really make up for this.  But we can’t help wondering what might have been.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge some of the talent on show here – this is one case where we can definitely say the cast came out fighting.  Scott Garnham gave us some thrilling vocals as feckless lover Baron von Felix von Gaigern.  Jacob Chapman, last seen by us as Pish Tush in the Mikado, graduates from slinky to sleazy as dodgy banker Hermann Presysing, taking to the dark side with genuine menace.  Victoria Serra is delightfully cheeky as shameless career-girl Flaemmchen (just Flaemmchen, like ‘Garbo’). We’d have loved to see her dancing in a space larger than a chicken-run.  Christine Grimandi is suitably imposing as ageing ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, and Valerie Cutko, whom we have previously seen hosting cabaret at Lauderdale house, cuts a dash as her assistant and secret admirer, Raffaela, with vocals to match.

Oh, and did we mention the perverse, sorry, traverse staging?  It’s a funny thing, but we just can’t seem to see past it.

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I’ll Sing once More: Connie Fisher heads for the hills

The BBC recently broadcast a documentary about Connie Fisher, called I’ll Sing Once More – there is still some time left to watch it on iPlayer.  It is billed as the story of Connie Fisher’s ‘attempt to cure the loss of her singing voice with the help of voice builder Gary Catona, the man credited with saving Whitney Houston’s voice’.  Interesting and touching though it is as an exploration of the emotional and physical journey she has been on, it is the story that doesn’t get told that is really intriguing.

Here is the ‘girl’ who won the first Andrew Lloyd Webber TV casting show ‘How Do you solve a problem like Maria?’ amidst public hysteria, and helped to popularise a format which seemed to deliver publicity and profit beyond Lloyd Webber’s wildest dreams.  Well, he must have had some reason for repeating the exercise another four times.  Perhaps we are naive, but whilst Lloyd Webber can hardly be held responsible for ruining her voice, he is strangely absent from this story.  With admirable courage, Fisher puts herself through the emotional wringer once more to see if she can rebuild her voice, as well as revisiting the surgeon who may still hold out hope for her.  She is also searingly honest about her obsessive personality and the damage she did to herself by using steroids to keep going instead of allowing her voice to rest.  But what does all this say about the industry? Comparisons have often been made between Fisher and Julie Andrews, but the tragic figure this brings to our mind is Judy Garland, surrounded by people ‘helping’ her to keep going with the prescription drugs upon which she became dependent.

The most telling ‘confession’ comes from Ted Chapin, president of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the organisation which owns the rights to ‘The Sound of Music’, someone purporting to be one of the ‘good guys’.  Commenting on Connie’s schedule, which included eight shows a week on top of publicity appearances, he pointed out that this was an exceptional case.  She had been chosen by the public, and she felt an obligation to turn up for every performance. “I wonder” he muses, “in retrospect whether that wasn’t part of the problem, and whether if she had been given some time off, or been given two performances a week off, as other people are in the theatre, whether the problems that she ended up having with her voice would have happened, or would have happened so seriously.”  But of course, we know that there was a back-up plan in place.  As we have previously posted, experienced West End performer Emma Williams was lined up as an ‘alternate’ Maria, but mysteriously disappeared from the picture just as Connie Fisher’s unanticipated popularity became apparent.  But it gets better: Chapin goes on to say that “I will confess that I wanted the best for Connie more than I wanted the best for the Sound of Music…and because I had grown to like her and care for her I wanted the best for her whatever that was.”  And that says it all.  Goodness knows what help there would have been for a less ‘likeable’ performer.

Despite wanting to downplay Connie Fisher’s musical theatre training at the time of her victory, by referring to her as a telesales worker, the fact remains that while she was trained, she was not experienced.  In the introduction she says herself that she “jumped the queue.”  It is rare for recent graduates to jump into starring West End roles for a reason – they are unlikely to have the stamina and technique to manage the schedule.  Not only was she inexperienced but she was young.  Who was helping her to protect an asset that should have lasted her a lifetime?  Exploitation doesn’t really cover it, and with a televised audition process, it could be argued, that there is already a bias towards the most extreme personalities, those who are most willing to humiliate themselves and defer to the process, and least likely to take care of themselves by taking a step back when they need to. Reality is the one thing that tends to be noticeably absent from reality TV.

And in Connie’s documentary, there is a striking echo of the rigours of casting by TV, when she attempts to have some lessons with voice builder Gary Catona.  Courageous, foolish, or just so used to living her life in the spotlight that she doesn’t notice the cameras?   We are not sure – perhaps it’s all three, but she particularly struggles with his method, which requires his pupils to ‘sound ugly’ before they can sound beautiful.  She is in tears much of the time, whether with the joy of getting her voice back or the horror of having to make horrendous sounds.   Yet surely it is essential to all kinds of performing to be able to stop watching yourself and let rip.  This is one of the cruelest aspects of the casting shows themselves.  After all, each contestant is eliminated after giving their ‘worst’ public performance.  At least normal auditions allow the losing candidates some dignity in their failure.

Which brings us back to Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Perhaps the saddest moment of all comes near the end of the programme, in which Fisher is offered the possibility of another surgical procedure on her throat.  Understandably cautious, she then reveals that “Half the battle with my operations was that I spent all the money I earned playing Maria on being Maria, and I can’t really afford another operation”.  It is heart-breaking to hear, and somehow symbolic of her whole predicament.  The casting process identifies her forever as a single character in a show, because that is what suits the producers.  Her long-term career doesn’t matter to these people, and in this brief insight we see a desperation to hold on to her association with the role which ultimately seems to have been self-destructive. Would multi-millionaire Lloyd Webber step in to pay for surgery for his protegé?  We’ll never know.

One thing we do know is that Lloyd Webber is campaigning to have the UK laws around children working in the theatre relaxed to allow for longer hours and shorter breaks.  For him, the regulations which are there to protect young performers are just ‘red tape’ holding him back.  His new show ‘School of Rock’ will now open on Broadway because (surprise, surprise), the rules are more relaxed over there.  Children are children, however talented they may be, and they have needs outside their performing careers.  If the most prominent names in show business can’t see that, what hope is there for adults?

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Backwood bachelors: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Saturday 18th July 2015, matinée

Regents Park Open Air Theatre seems uniquely suited to staging a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – whilst not exactly a match for the grandeur of the American West, the outdoor setting certainly helps, and the venue has made a name for itself with musical adaptations, most notably for us ‘Hello Dolly’ and Crazy for You.  Having booked our tickets, news that the cast was going to be lead by Laura Pitt-Pulford was just the cherry on top.

We can’t accuse the writers of being coy about the storyline – the show sets out its stall early on when backwoodsman Adam Pontipee strolls through the audience and onto the stage singing ‘Bless your beautiful hide’.  Yes, it’s a song about a woman, the woman he hopes to marry one day, wherever she may be, and it’s quite a long list of attributes he is looking for, mostly related to personal grooming and cooking ability.  He’s been waiting too long, he feels, and, popping into town to do some trading he decides to pick himself up a wife.  Miraculously, he finds Milly Bradon, who ticks all the boxes and is fed up of her thankless job as cook and waitress. She agrees to bypass the months of ‘courtin” and marry him on the spot.  Little does she know he has six brothers at home, but unfazed, she decides that the only way she is going to get some peace with her new husband is to find wives for them all.  It’s a bit like Jane Austen in reverse.

The musical is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, ‘The Sobbin Women’, a pun on the famous ‘Sabine women’ who were abducted by the ancient Romans.  We were expecting to have to ignore the sexual politics and just sit back and enjoy the songs (original music by Gene de Paul, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, with later additions by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn), but we found ourselves enjoying the lighthearted satire as well.  The tone is managed perfectly by putting Milly firmly in the driving seat.  She might have married for love (and literally at first sight) but there is not much sentimentality about her. She realises she will need to take control and she is undaunted by the task.  Adam and his younger brothers on the other hand are big kids, more to be pitied than feared, and they are on a steep learning curve, never more than when Milly teaches them to dance in their long johns like a group of overgrown toddlers.

There isn’t too much time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the action, though, with a rip-roaring pace and impeccable comic timing, along with dance sequences which remind us what made the film so famous in the first place. It’s no mean task recreating those dance sequences live, and choreographer Alistair David and his spirited cast don’t hold back.

As Milly, Laura Pitt-Pulford is the lynch-pin of the show.  She is has a lot to do, and we can’t think of an actress and singer better suited to the task – she’s lovely enough to marry at first sight, feisty enough to become an instant matriarch in a lonely cabin in the mountains, and never loses her charm and lightness of touch as she steers these unreconstructed men through the rigours of ‘modern’ civilisation (or as their brother would have it, turns them into cissies).  We never fail to marvel at her singing voice, and the emotional range she brings to every song.  Here she has free rein to show off her abilities.

Alex Gaumond has the unenviable task of winning over the audience in spite of his caveman attitudes to gender roles – when his younger brothers urge to him behave he proclaims ‘I don’t have to – I already got me a wife!’ Of course, there is a decent man inside waiting to be discovered, and Gaumond does a great job of revealing the lovable rogue beneath the bluster, with fine vocals into the bargain.  The production has a massive cast, all of whom have their moments, so it would be a shame to miss anyone out.  So here we have the suddenly eligible and strangely balletic bachelors: Leon Cooke, Bob Harms, James Leece, Sam O’Rourke, Adam Rhys-Charles, Ed White; and their plucky wives: Rosanna Bates, Charlene Ford, Bethany Huckle, Frankie Jenna, Natasha Mould and Karli Vale.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has been through a few incarnations since the film version in 1954, and we have to say it scrubs up well. Director Rachel Kavanaugh and musical Director and superviser Stephen Ridley and Gareth Valentine have given it a no-nonsense production which perfectly showcases the talents of the whole cast.  Ironically though, although many new songs have been added over the years, it’s ‘Bless your Beautiful hide’ we came out humming.  And if you would like to hum along too, we were very pleased to see that there is a new CD available featuring the cast.

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Hello? The Book of Mormon tops the league table for overpriced tickets….again

According to The Stage, there’s a new league table in town, and theatres seem to be clammering to be at the top of it.

Yes, this is The Stage’s new annual ticketing survey, which declares ‘The Book of Mormon’ winner of the greediest purveyors of greed award (as we like to call it).  Strangely, the ticket price is set at a very precise £202.25.  As though someone is trying to win a sealed bid.  But why would anybody want to advertise their intention to rip customers off so shamelessly?  Maybe price-referencing has something to do with it.   This is the practice of deliberately over-pricing certain products in a range in order to make the others look cheaper.  A quick look at the seating plan for the stalls starts to look like a supermarket shelf.  Firstly, only a tiny number of seats are priced over £200.  But now, there is a whole range of price points within the ‘premium range’ (Taste the difference anyone?), leaving a ‘top price’ ticket of £77.25 which covers most of the auditorium on the more popular nights.  The position of the seats cannot justify the price differential, but once you’ve got a figure of £200 in your head, everything else suddenly seems cheap.  It’s not a rational process.  Nobody in their right mind would look at the seating plan, see a £150 ticket next to a £200 one, and think, I’ll get the expensive one because clearly I’m going to get another 33% of enjoyment by sitting one foot nearer the centre of the row.  In fact, some of the cheaper seats are nearer the stage. ‘Demand’ is the constantly repeated mantra, but actually this is more about price sensitivity.  Just as Starbucks have invented a great way to take money from customers who don’t care about the price-tag with the invention of overpriced marshmallow toppings on drinks, theatres are getting in on the act.  Three years ago we made this point and predicted that once producers have identified a group of price-insensitive customers, the sky’s the limit, and it seems we have been proved right so far, with every sign that the trend will continue.

The next task is to convince audiences that it is virtually impossible to get tickets most of the time.  So for example, we have Chief executive of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers Jonathan Brown claiming that ‘the premium price category allows late access to good seats for high-selling shows [and] in many ways follows a similar pricing model to plane and train travel’.  So what he seems to be saying is theatres are thoughtfully pricing poor people out of the market so that there are always a few tickets left for rich people.  But having monitored last-minute availability for a show like The Book of Mormon over a few days, we have yet to see a sold-out show.  Yet on the official website is an invitation to join a special exclusive ‘priority list’ to be contacted about returns.  ‘Can’t wait to see the Book of Mormon? Join our priority SMS returns queue’ it proclaims.  Or, we suggest, wait one or two days and book an available ticket on the website.  Again, it is totally irrational to wait for a return when you could just book ahead.  But if you can induce some kind of group panic about scarcity, and then offer a form of ‘rescue’, the product will be valued all the higher.  It’s the kind of trick hotel booking sites use with their ‘helpful’ warnings that the room you are looking at is about to be sold out.  That constant state of ‘nearly’ missing out is the holy grail of the marketing people – and have you noticed how miraculously there always seems to be something available?

Proponents of dynamic pricing are keen to point out that tickets can get cheaper too, but again, the full story is not being told.  Just as the ‘premium price’ and top price tickets creep over ever larger areas of the auditorium (we actually saw a premium price restricted view ticket for one show), the seats at the cheapest prices really are the worst seats in the house – there is very little chance of grabbing a slight less worse seat by booking early, as we used to recommend.  And the differential between the bottom and next price up is, again, completely out of kilter with reality.  This is the ‘basics’ range, it’s not there to give anyone a bargain, it’s a way of clearly identifying the least desirable product.  Surely the prize for disingenuity, though, must go to another glorious quote from Jonathan Brown, who comments that the 33% price hikes at the top end ‘go some way to making these lower prices commercially viable’.  And the lower prices he is referring to?  A drop from an average of £20.36 to £20.13 – that’s just over 1%.  All we’re saying is, don’t let him anywhere near your financial affairs as he clearly struggles to work out just where all that extra money is going.  No wonder ‘The Stage’ also seems to have stopped commenting too loudly on the disparity between profits and audience figures.  Perhaps it is just too embarrassing to have to admit that the gap is widening, with a report from February 2015 quoting revenues increasing by 6% while audience figures remain static, which belies claims of dynamic pricing responding to ‘demand’.  Demand is not growing, yet prices are rising.  Isn’t that what economists call a ‘broken market’?

We are also getting quite tired of hearing about the analogies between theatres and airlines, because one important point is always ignored by most commentators. Steve Rich of Theatremonkey has already eloquently explained the point, but it bears repeating.  Let’s take Easyjet as an example.  You can actually go to their website and have it explained to you in words of one syllable: if you want a cheap seat, book early.  That’s all you have to do. And they will even give you a voucher if the price goes down instead of up.  They tap into the primal human urge to get a bargain without denting their profits by giving customers a genuinely fair chance and giving them fair warning that prices will go up if they leave it too long. Compare that with the West End theatres.  The pricing might be complicated, but the message is clear – theatre is now for the rich, and we should be grateful for any crumbs that fall off the table.  Even Juliet Stevenson baulks at the price of tickets now.  The vast corporations that now control the West End seem to have decided that theatre is a cash cow to be milked.  We don’t expect supermarkets to nurture a love of food, so why should we expect corporations that own theatres to nurture a love of theatre?

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