Five Finger Exercise delivers a knuckle sandwich: Print Room at the Coronet

Saturday 23rd January 2016, matinée

We were intrigued to discover that after several cosy afternoons at the Print Room in its tiny theatre space in Hereford Road, that the founders had decamped to a much more ambitious venue – the former Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate.  Would they lose some of the frisson that came from such an intimate space?  Well, the space they have created out of the old cinema building is instantly appealing.  It takes a while to realise that they have used the ground floor as a trendy bar decorated to within an inch of its life with a range of antique props, leaving the circle as a perfectly proportioned mini-theatre.  The old ‘slimline’ wooden chairs are still there, with the rather disturbing addition of a free fleecy blanket each – fortunately the cold spell that must have prompted this addition had moved on by the time we visited.  The distressed state of the building is in fact the beginnings of a restoration project, so make the most of this unique space – it feels exciting even before the action starts.

We were already buzzing with anticipation at the thought of experiencing an early Peter Shaffer play, his first major success, ‘Five Finger Exercise’.  Set in the weekend country retreat of the Harringtons, a rustic cottage paid for by Stanley Harrington’s furniture business, and decorated by his wife Louise who despises his vulgar trade and fancies herself as his superior when it comes to taste.  The ‘retreat’ becomes the battleground for well-worn family conflict between the self-made man desperate for a game of golf, the glamorous wife who feels stifled by the lack of culture, a neurotic son, Clive, who is starting to drink too much, and an overly cheerful younger daughter, Pamela, who seems to have hard-won wisdom beyond her years.  Into this mix comes Walter, Pamela’s tutor, with his own terrible history growing up in Germany during the war, for whom the Harringtons seem to be the perfect family.  At first.

Disturbingly, Shaffer later described this play as ‘semi-autobiographical’, and there is certainly a sense that he had a lot of material to draw on.  On the surface, the play revels in the details of everyday life and the power play contained in the endless trivial rituals. Underneath there is a carefully constructed drama.  Shaffer has said that “Tragedy, for me, is not a conflict between right and wrong, but between two different kinds of right.”  This play certainly has this idea at its centre – there are no heroes or villains here, it is the apparent inability of each character to accept and understand the others that does so much damage.

It is easy to see the writing talent that later won such recognition with ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Equus’ – the writing is dense but not stodgy, and packed full of heartfelt emotion, imaginative flights of fancy, and a surprising amount of humour, given the subject matter. Stanley’s strenuous efforts to get his son to live in what he thinks is the real world are by turns humourous and painful, and the sibling banter gives us flashes of happier times. The sense that all the ingredients of happiness are here is palpable, and the failure of the family to find it is the ultimate tragedy.

The cast of five are all excellent, and very well cast in Jamie Glover’s production.  Lucy Cohu brilliantly portrays the matriarch Louise, her brittle emotions made visible in her physicality, and the paper thin veneer of sophistication barely concealing her apparent mission to kill her entire family with kindness.  Jason Merrells as Stanley is the perfect foil, mostly silent with a good line in passive aggression, until even he can see that action is needed.  The deeply hidden frustration of being surrounded by people he literally cannot understand is always beneath the surface.  As Walter, Lorne MacFadyen provides a calm centre and as the outsider, gives us a more detached perspective.  He portrays the depth of his character with a layered, measured performance which draws us in almost imperceptibly.  Tom Morley as Clive physically embodies a sense of overwhelming emotion, spilling out by turns with vitriol, boyish humour, and poetic vision.  It is not easy being the conduit of all the family ills, and he does it with humour and passion.  Terenia Edwards on the other hand makes a bright and breezy Pamela, whose good humour seems inexhaustible, and who at only 15 seems to have the measure of her family and its internal conflict, albeit at the cost of emotional detachment.

This production is a real treat and a chance to sample the early talent of Peter Shaffer, with an excellent cast and skillful, clear direction. Which makes us wonder if it is time for a revival from the other end of Shaffer’s career – his last (or should we say latest?) and sadly underappreciated play ‘The Gift of the Gorgon’.

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Our revels now are just beginning: The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company brings Harlequinade to the Garrick

Saturday 19th December 2015, matinée

Well, we didn’t plan it this way, but we seem to have got ourselves into an endless loop of backstage comedies, first with Ben Hur at the Tricycle, then with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and finally with Harlequinade, our first taste of the new year-long residence at the Garrick by Kenneth Branagh and his company, named with an admirable lack of nonsense the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company.  The combination of Branagh and the chance of another Terrence Rattigan play was irresistible.  It’s certainly brave to choose a comedy about a touring theatre company which is in danger of falling apart at the seams, given the ambition of Branagh’s own plans for this inaugural season, which will culminate in the man himself playing the lead in ‘The Entertainer’.  But it is this unpretentious chutzpah which makes Branagh such a pleasure to watch.

Before we get down to another afternoon of theatrical Schadenfreude, we are treated to an added bonus in the form of a short Rattigan one-woman play ‘All on her own’, performed by Zoë Wanamaker.  Originally written for TV, the monologue skilfully explores some dark themes – the self-delusion and self-torture of a woman trying to understand the actions of her dead husband, locked in an endless question and answer session with herself, and breaking into impersonations of her husband with a ‘bad Huddersfield accent’.  We are not sure how well it translates to the stage, especially a large theatre, where some of the claustrophobia of the intense inner drama is lost, but this is a rare opportunity for the Rattigan aficionado.

No sooner had the curtain fallen (with just a few moments to jostle for some slightly less worse seats in the Upper Circle), than a film came up detailing the activities of ‘CEMA’, the ‘Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts’, the post war predecessor of the Arts Council, and we are immediately in the world of Arthur Gosport and his wife Edna, veterans of the stage, whose acting company is bringing Shakespeare to the masses, and for whom playing the teenage Romeo and Juliet is just a case of mind over matter. Returning to Brackley, Gosport has a vague sense of Deja Vu, before being confronted with a daughter and grandchild he never thought he had, not to mention the slow realisation that through sheer absent-mindedness he is bigamously married to Edna. Meanwhile the stage manager (a suitably exasperated Tom Bateman) is in the middle of his own tug of love and spends the play trying to tell the couple he must leave the company to get a job ‘in the firm’ with his fiance’s father – between their self-absorption and his ambivalence, this one will run and run.

Kenneth Branagh displays his famous ability to attract a high quality cast in all the roles and it shows.  Zoë Wanamaker is Dame Maud, self-appointed mentor to Arthur and Edna, full of faint praise delivered with a velvet voice (“you’re too old to play Romeo and Juliet” she proclaims as they try to adjust the lighting to make it more flattering).  John Dagleish, fresh from widespread acclaim as Ray Davies in ‘Sunny Afternoon’ making a great straight man as the bemused policeman, and veteran of West End musicals Hadley Fraser making a hilarious appearance as the ‘First Halberdier’, who gets unexpectedly promoted.  He does get to show off his singing skills, although not in the way you might expect.  The whole company are led by a masterful comic duo.  It is a particular pleasure to see Miranda Raison get some material worthy of her talents, following Hello/Goodbye at the Hampstead Theatre.  Here she is more than a match for Branagh, and perfectly captures the subtle but powerfully disarming quality of the eternal actress.  She knows her place in the company, but she expertly plays on the insecurities of her husband whilst simultaneously playing the supportive wife, all with perfect charm and a lightness of touch that is all the more hilarious.  Branagh himself is perfectly cast, bringing the genuine gravitas of the heavyweight actor to the part, before seamlessly moving into the realms of high comedy.  He is completely obsessed, but layered with a veneer of affability which is occasionally punctured with explosive irritability when the real world threatens to rear its ugly head.  Never mind high drama, not many actors can imbue the everyday triviality and superficiality of theatrical life with such intensity.

What strikes us most about this piece is how little it has dated.  The halcyon days of generous government funding for touring companies may have gone along with some of the more ‘dramatic’ acting styles, but the everyday human drama is universal and engaging.  Rattigan’s writing is brilliant, and the acting and creative team have more than done him justice, whether it is in the tight and uncluttered direction of Branagh himself and Rob Ashford, Christopher Oram’s lovingly created set and costumes (some great wig work here), or Bret Yount’s hilariously choreographed fight scenes.

And there’s plenty more to look forward to.  Next up for us will be ‘The Painkiller’, directed by Sean Foley, and for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, we warmly recommend the revival of Red Velvet starting in January.

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Carnage in Neverland: Peter Pan Goes wrong at the Apollo Theatre

Saturday 5th December 2015, matinée

Almost a year ago, we reviewed The Play that Goes Wrong, and concluded by hoping to see more of Mischief Theatre.  So we were very pleased to find out that their touring production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong was coming to the West End with the original company, and keen to see how many different ways they could ruin a production of ‘Peter Pan’.

For the uninitiated, the set up is simple but effective.  The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, receiving a clearly undeserved injection of cash from the uncle of one of its worst actors, reaches new heights of inappropriate ambition, with a full on version of ‘Peter Pan’, complete with a revolving set, high wire antics and an insane rate of doubling up to portray all the characters.  This is a serious undertaking – ‘Not a pantomime’, the director declares (“Oh yes it is!” declares a plucky cast member).

Mischief Theatre have a tried and tested recipe for success, with pure, unadulterated slapstick at the heart of it.  Some of the simplest disasters are the most effective.  Hence Nana, the Newfoundland dog who acts as the children’s nanny, played by the most, shall we say, portly of the actors (Henry Lewis), gets stuck in her ‘dog flap’ in the door with satisfying predictability, and the world’s most unsubtle stage-hands rescue ensues as Mrs Darling tries to sing a lullaby to her children.  The triple bunk beds collapsing with joyful precision is another great moment, as are the numerous imaginative and beautifully executed accidents which result in physical, mental or emotional injury for most of the cast.

On top of the highly technical wizardry with which Peter Pan really does ‘go wrong’, we have the classic characters of the amateur stage – the star-struck and vaguely competent actors who want to keep reminding us of their brilliance; the stage hands who inevitably get roped in (in this case literally) to cover a part and whose sheer embarrassment and pain is clearly visible.  And then there are the different types of incompetence – a young girl playing Tootles (Rosie Abraham) whose parents have decided she really must get over her stage fright; the actor playing John Darling (Jonathan Sayer), who refuses to learn his lines and spends the entire play wearing radio headphones so his lines can be relayed to him; and Max (Dave Hearn), the one with the rich uncle who yearns to play Peter Pan so he can get close to the actress playing Wendy (Charlie Russell).  His desperation to be in the limelight coupled with extreme incompetence is indeed an acting tour de force.

All these elements are skillfully layered together by writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.  Naturally it is the actress with the worst stage fright to whom all the accidents happen, culminating in a gloriously surreal moment when she must somehow walk the plank in a wheelchair on a violently listing ship.  Tinkerbell (a delightful and extremely versatile Nancy Wallinger – this is just one of her many quick-change parts) deserves a prize for being the world’s most unethereal fairy – with trainers, a hip-hop dance style and array of full size light-bulbs adorning her costume which requires a stage hand to follow her at all times, feeding electrical cable out as she moves around. Disaster comes as expected when she is sprayed with water, but the resolution is hilariously surreal. John’s radio headphones allow a window into the backstage angst as he repeats everything he is told, leading to a full scale marital break-up interrupting the action.  The high-wire shenanigans are also taken to a new level.  The initial set-up for the children to fly away with Peter Pan is nicely undercut when only their clothes soar into the gods.  Then the actor playing Peter Pan, never quite appearing to be in control of the wire, meets with an ‘unfortunate accident’, ushering in that mischief theatre signature moment – the stage hand taking over the part.  Adding to the comedy of out of control wire antics, he is reading not just his lines, but the stage directions, his voice trembling with dread as he realises too late that he is about to be yanked unceremoniously onto the nearest piece of scenery.  Needless to say the stage direction ‘Peter Pan lands effortlessly and gracefully’ is never enacted.  We won’t reveal the coup de grace and its aftermath, but it is done exquisitely.  There can’t be many things more difficult than performing perfectly choreographed hire wire sequences that seem to be careering out of control, and Greg Tannahill and Chris Leask as Peter Pan and Trevor the stage hand respectively do it brilliantly.

There is so much to enjoy here that it would be churlish to complain, but at times the comedy becomes unfocused as if there is a literal embarrassment of riches in the source material.  It is the true sadism that tends to work best, and we would love to see them tackle something really disastrous – how about ‘Titanic goes wrong’……

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Chariots of Mirth: Ben Hur at the Tricycle Theatre

Saturday 28th November 2015, matinee

When we spotted the whacky poster for ‘Ben Hur’ at the Tricycle Theatre, we thought something looked familiar, and when we inspected the small print to reveal Patrick Barlow as the writer, we realised that this must be the perfect project for the creator of that legendary theatre group ‘The National Theatre of Brent’.  With such classics as ‘Love Upon the Throne’, ‘The Wonder of Sex’ and ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, all performed by a company of just two, the aim was always to find a subject as solemn and ambitious as possible, and mine it for all the comedy it was worth.  As we say, we can see the attraction of Ben Hur, a serious novel which deliberately took the character of Jesus Christ and made him peripheral (and yet so symbolically central) to the story.  And as for ambition, what’s not to admire?  Not only a legendary chariot race, but sea battles and a setting as wide as the Roman Empire itself.  To be fair, this particular version boasts a cast of four.

With Barlow’s alter ego Desmond Olivier Dingle apparently put out to pasture, we have the equally pompous ‘actor manager’ Daniel Vale, brilliantly portrayed by John Hopkins with a heady cocktail of naive enthusiasm, barely concealed vanity and deep insecurity.  He is ably assisted by a cast of three, Alix Dunmore, Ben Jones and Richard Durden, who play all the other characters (Vale is of course Ben Hur).  There are some great turns from each of them with Ben Jones making a strangely touching Jesus despite all attempts at mockery, Alix Dunmore switching costumes and wigs with alarming alacrity, and Richard Durden switching genders as well.  Our only comment would be that with a larger cast, it is much harder to give everyone a sufficiently humourous back-story, and the painful intensity of just two actors is harder to achieve.  In a word, these actors are not quite toe-curlingly awful enough.

Having said that there are some fantastic set pieces which fulfill all our expectations of the requisite bathos.  The galley scenes (that’s rowing, not cooking) use that old favourite of life-size dummies chained in rows and operated by the cast, and the pitch of absurdity rises sharply when the sea battle commences and dummies are hurled onto the stage in simulated fight scenes and then into the audience, resulting in a stage announcement you don’t hear every day, ‘There will now be a short interval.  Please return the pirates to the stage’.  We won’t give away the twist with the chariot-race but it doesn’t disappoint.  The small touches are also a delight – the classic feathers from a helmet caught in the door, and a rather good baby-tossing scene when the wise men help Mary to hide the baby Jesus from King Herod’s men.

The bizarre thing about this version is that the spirit of the original is not completely diminished – this is very much an affectionately comic version which somehow manages to push the boundaries without entirely abandoning good taste.  Thus the ending has Daniel Vale experiencing his own personal ‘Ben Hur’ epiphany when the actor playing Jesus takes the opportunity of the resurrection to deliver a few home truths before presiding over a small miracle of his own.

We have to confess that in places the script is not quite a tight as we would like.  There are times when the sheer amount of exposition does detract from the comedy.  But this production is full of fun and irreverence, whilst at the same time actually making us look forward to the inevitable Christmas screening of the film.  And if you feel the same, how about this piece of unintentional comedy – Leslie Nielson doing a screen test for the part of Mesalla.


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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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