A sudden proliferation of dark theatres
Broadway is used to seeing dark marquees, sometimes for months on end, as theatres patiently await their next bookings—at least it was prior to this season. But in London, West End theatres are routinely booked back-to-back. But this week something happened that caused the West End—and the ancillary businesses, like restaurants and cabs, that depend on it—to sit up and notice: Seven theatres were simultaneously dark, plus an eighth, the London Palladium only staging one-nighters.
It’s true that each and every one has a future booking already lined up, and by the end of the self-same week, two more had their marquees lit again as the Phoenix and Wyndham’s welcomed new tenants. But overall, it meant that there were approximately 8,000 seats across the West End guaranteed to sit empty—almost 20 percent of all seats in the West End.
As Ryan Woods, Head of Sales and marketing at London Theatre Bookings, was quoted telling whatsonstage.com, “I don’t think there has ever been a point where 20 per cent of the West End has been completely inaccessible. Spring can always be a time for change but even looking further ahead, large houses remain empty, the Victoria Palace is due to close for refurbishment and Aladdin doesn’t open at the Prince Edward until the end of May. It’s very unusual to have this amount of seats just not available.”
A proliferation of one-star shows
Though The New York Times admirably holds out against awarding star ratings to their reviews, every other major outlet that cover Broadway and West End theatre now does. So just by checking them out, you can get a sense of what a show is like, without even having to read the words they are attached to.
On that basis, London has just had a rare week of poorly-reviewed shows: Two shows that opened on successive nights this week—a new musical called Miss Atomic Bomb (that opened March 14 at the St. James Theatre) and a new comedy Not Moses (opened March 15 at the Arts Theatre) both earned multiple one-star reviews in major reviewing outlets that included The Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and The Stage [Full disclosure: I wrote the reviews for the latter].
And there was a third show If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me—a revue song cycle performed by Jane Horrocks (Bubbles from Absolutely Fabulous and the original star of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice on stage and screen) and dancers—that also got a one-star notice from the London Times, and several reviews from other publications in which the critics admitted it wasn’t for them, either, but at least acknowledged its execution.
In The Stage, Natasha Tripney wrote of its score of ‘80s songs by bands like Joy Division, Buzzcocks and The Smiths, “This is not my music. I suspect it might make a considerable difference if it were.” Another younger critic Matt Trueman also noted (for Whatsonstage), “Look, I wouldn’t know a Buzzcock if it hit me in the face. I wasn’t a Mancunian teen in the late ‘70s, ’'ve never knowingly picked up a copy of NME and I’m the only person in the world that wasn’t at the Lesser Free Trade Hall to see the Sex Pistols. I’m so post-punk, I’m Britpop. Safe to say, I am not the target audience for this show.”
In the show’s most admiring notice, the Daily Telegraph dance critic Mark Monahan awarded it four stars, dubbing it an “utterly original, impossibly sleek new song-and-dance show,” and noting that it’s obviously a personal show: ”It is the songs one hears in one’s teens that bore their way most potently into our psyches, and these 12 tracks—mostly from the more arcane reaches of Northern late Seventies/early Eighties punk, post-punk and new wave—were presumably the soundtrack to the young Horrocks’s life. Put another way, this is a show she’s probably been wanting to put on ever since she was about 13.It is to Horrocks’s immense credit that she—now a highly successful 53—more than gets away with delivering these slices of almost exclusively youthful misery.”
Getting ready for another close-up
Glenn Close is getting ready for another close-up when she reprises the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard that won her a Tony Award when she originated it on Broadway 22 years ago. At that time, there was much controversy when she replaced Patti LuPone, who had created the role in London. She will begin performances April 1 in Lonny Price’s semi-staged concert production at the London Coliseum.
In an interview with the London Times, published on her 69th birthday, she told how she still loves the job. “I do really enjoy it. Thank goodness; this is a hard profession and I started more than 40 years ago, and I’m still here.” It has also sustained her through some tough personal issues—she lost her mother last year, aged 90, and also her third marriage ended. “It makes me grateful that I have work. Work becomes a healing experience when something like that has happened—losing my mom and not being married any more.”
As for returning to the role of Norman Desmond, she notes, “It’s a huge luxury to come back to a part like this, having had so much life in between, because Norma is one of the great parts. She is an iconic figure and nothing has become irrelevant about what she goes through. Back then I was so nervous about the technical aspects, how to sing the score; now I am more aware of the acting part of it, her emotional journey. This just seems deeper, not quite as Grand Guignol. There is a whole other side of Norma, which is that she was this young innocent person who went into the mill of Hollywood and came out terribly damaged.”
Which show will be announced the audience favourite?
The Olivier Awards—the London industry equivalent of the Tonys—take place April 3 at the Royal Opera House. And while most of the categories are voted on by industry insiders, there's one category—the Magic Radio Audience Award—that’s specifically reserved for industry outsiders, and the people that the industry is there to serve: the audience. The radio station’s audience were invited to vote their favourite show from a long-list of 16 eligible shows of long-runners, and out of this, Jersey Boys, Matilda The Musical, Les Misérables and The Phantom Of The Opera have been shortlisted.
Other theatre news of the week
The transfer of a highly acclaimed new production of the Kern and Hammerstein classic Show Boat begins performances April 9 at West End’ New London Theatre. It comes from a run at the regional Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, where it premiered last Christmas and will see the original company newly joined by Chris Peluso as Gaylord Ravenal (replacing Michael Xavier, who is playing Joe Gillis opposite Glenn Close's Norma Desmond), and Malcolm Sinclair as Captain Andy Hawks (replacing Allan Corduner). Peluso, whose Broadway credits include Beautiful The Carole King Musical, Assassins, Lestat and Mamma Mia! , first came to London to star as Chris in the original cast of the new production of Miss Saigon.
Frank Wildhorn’s 2011 Broadway musical Wonderland—not to be confused with a new musical also called wonder.land that is currently playing at the National, with a score by Damon Albarn—has been announced to receive its British premiere at Edinburgh’s Playhouse January 20, prior to a national tour, under the direction of Lottie Wakeham. No casting has been announced yet.
For regular updates on the U.K. scene, follow Mark Shenton on Twitter @shentonstage.