Wednesday, 18 April 2018
I went to see Brad Birch’s new play Tremor at the Sherman Theatre as a reviewer for Miro magazine. You can read my more traditional review here.
For new work however, I like to spend time unpacking the play, and in particular the writing a little more. So here is my not-review of Tremor. Fair warning ‘spoilers’ ahead, perhaps save for after seeing it.
The most fascinating element of watching this play for me was second guessing my own, and fellow audience member’s reactions. And judging myself accordingly. Going in knowing only a ‘tragedy’ causes a couple to reassess their situation and relationship my mind had gone to natural disaster, violent acts, end of the world scenario and yes, of course in the world we live in Terrorism. So, the slow burn of revealing the details of the event, and subsequent twist were a fascinating lead in to what had happened to this couple. The seemingly almost mundane nature of a bus accident when it is revealed is fascinating in that it showed how tragedy weaves its way into a relationship. The later reveal of the wider issues- the enquiry associated with it, the political and moral issues faced by the seven survivors, and the incredibly personal nature of that for this couple, really did feel like a peak behind the headlines surrounding tragedy we see every day.
The slight insight the play gives- an hour of real time conversation- gives only a glimpse into the personalities and relationship of the couple. This is a powerful approach, it reminds us of the fleeting nature of our relationships, but also of the idea of how little we know the people in our lives. The idea of Tom and Sophie coming back into each others lives, with certain expectations of how the other is- in Sophie’s case based on both the ‘old Tom’ before the accident, the one who ‘took the piss’ out of everything, and the man she saw created by the media. And in Tom’s case, the Sophie he presumably once loved and cared for, and the Sophie who no longer fits into his world view.
This snapshot of their lives also gives a snapshot of trauma and grief. Tom’s description of not being able to get on a bus, or travel on a road. Of the impact on his life, inability to get a job brings to light the complexities of what happens after a tragedy. We care about him in that moment, we see how the accident has destroyed him. A sympathy that is tested as his political and social views, and their extremes are exposed, but perhaps also the memory of that previous sympathy perhaps colour that?
The characters, though we only get a small slice of them are complex, and challenge the audience view of them, and of ourselves, constantly across the play. We think we know who these people are, and then the idea shifts. We think we know whose ‘side’ we’d take and then it shifts again. And even when we finally see Tom’s most extreme of viewpoints, when he challenges Sophie to join him, we wonder still about how he got there and how we might also align with him, in the same position. Our liberal viewpoints, our instinct like Sophie to perhaps forgive and move on, our outrage at the way Tom behaved during the inquiry is niggled at constantly and challenged by the sympathy we might have felt for him earlier in the conversation. It’s complex, viewed from only a glimpse of them, out of context, without to borrow the inquiry theme ‘proper evidence’. And perhaps Birch is asking too much, spreading that challenge too thin on too little content. But the point more seems to be to make an audience think.
The themes Birch crams into his microcosm of the relationship are broad and complex. And in the hour running time can't hope to be addressed adequately. And in the watching it is at times frustrating. There's barely a breath between reference to accepting the gay couple in their friendship group and debating the press treatment of Muslims. But perhaps that's the point. In our day to day conversations we don't always pause for reasoned debate and analysis leaping from one 'issue' to another, because life and conversation doesn't throw them at us in that manner.
The real time nature of the conversation also creates and allows for this. If you took the hour-long conversation I had with my companion with in the bar afterwards, you wouldn't find a neat analysis of every topic we covered- and in that we touched on employment, the NHS, marriage (not our own), the Labour Party and 'actors my Mother would like me to Marry'. Granted not all of these are weighty topics, but over the course of that hour we dipped in and out of some 'Big Ticket' items, and in some barely paused on them either. They're all swirling around in our consciousness as we exist in the world, even when they aren't fully articulated, and that feels like what Birch is reaching for. Of course in a play, rather than a chat in the bar, an audience might need a little more articulation to feel satisfied. But as experiment in theatrical form, its arguably also a satisfying approach.
As for the issues themselves, Birch doesn't aim low. A little over halfway through his twist on the conversation that the driver of the bus was a Muslim immediately challenges and changes our perceptions of the preceding action. Was it predictable? perhaps if we'd thought a little about it in advance. But going in 'cold' the thought hadn't crossed my mind, nor how the previous conversation between the characters was coloured by this. And what does that say of me as an audience member, and as a person? what does it say of someone else? Across this play, constantly I am drawn back to wanting to know my fellow audience member's thoughts and reactions. And that act of judgement on their (potential) thoughts, feeds into exactly what Birch is getting at.
Our playwrights are (rightly so) trying to address the state of the world as we find it. Tremor does that by looking at the state of the world from the point of view of how we react to it. Both through characters and his audiences. We may never know how the characters reacted next to what they'd been through, and what their reuniting stirred up. We might never know what our neighbour took away as a reaction to the play. But Birch is stirring up questions, and reactions through that conversation. And as much as his writing distills that from the bigger picture, into that microcosm of a relationship torn apart, so it's also distilled into audiences, and what they might take away.
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Ok wrong play, but the point still stands.
In one of several tweets about Julius Caesar at The Bridge theatre- all of which were positive, none of which were an in-depth review, given they were tweets- I made a comment about the use of the Mob.
My comment about the Mob itself is positive- and something I planned to expand on in this, my review. It creates great atmosphere, and as I’ll expand on, I think adds much to the story. But ‘You could not pay me to be down there’ is an expression of my personal preference- and aversion to such things. I say that, because I’m not fond of crowds and I’m even less fond of loud noises. Knowing both things played into the staging beforehand, I made a decision not to buy tickets for there. So far so sensible? After the event, observing that confirmed I would not have enjoyed it, and I made a comment to that end…while also praising that kind of staging for making it a great theatrical experience.
It’s not news that Twitter sometimes fails to grasp nuance. And many people replied to tell me I was ‘wrong’ and the Mob is indeed the best/only way to experience this play. Luckily for me 99% of these tweeters are reasonable people who then, when we engaged in discussion saw fully my point that yes! That experience is awesome no doubt! And it adds to the production! Which is awesome! But it’s also not for me!
Of course, this is twitter, and there’s always the 1% but back to that.
What the discussion led me to conclude is that in fact the best thing about this production is that it offers you a choice. A means to experience this semi-immersive production, even if being ‘immersed’ is not your thing. Staging ‘in the round’ with the stage/mob in the centre in the intimate setting of The Bridge allowed for still feeling ‘part’ of the action, and the effect of the action, without having to be in it.
And I think we need to be honest that immersive theatre, or certain styles of theatre aren’t for everyone. On the day I saw it, I’d been in London for 3 days in freezing cold and rain, I’d spent 8 hours locked in the Young Vic for The Inheritance, I’d slept on a Travelodge bed. I was with my 72-year-old Mother who had endured the same. Neither of us were in the mood for 2 hours of standing and being shoved about. However, from our perch at the back of the Gallery we loved watched the people be part of the mob, the effect it had on storytelling, and by default, the play.
Now I’m sure the people in the mob had a very different experience to myself. But to take one twitter argument thrown at me, and to flip it: is my experience watching from the gallery any less valid? I got to observe the actors fully, without worrying I was going to bash into someone, be bashed into or in this specific case fall over from exhaustion. I got to watch the whole ‘Picture’ at once, observing stage hands coming and going, observing the observers in the Mob. My experience was probably less ‘visceral’ than in the Mob, but I’d argue in being able to observe how that worked in staging, no less interesting a theatrical experience. Also, I still experienced the production, I was still to borrow from a musical over the river ‘In the room where it happened’. Just because my experience was different, doesn’t mean I didn’t experience it.
And I really do believe the ‘Mob’ staging adds something to the production. And perhaps as a professional nerd, and sometime scholar the observing of that was far more interesting to me. Watching how an audience behaves, observing how the audience as part of the production affects other people’s reaction is endlessly fascinating. But also, I just simply enjoyed the atmosphere it created. And it’s possible to do that, and not wish to be part of it. It’s also a valid, interesting take on the text itself. The baying crowds being physically present, in terms of a witnessing audience, rather than slightly bored ensemble. That’s a brilliant idea! The fact that audience members are engaged physically in the production, means they likely engage more emotionally, intellectually. Again- brilliant! The fact that the Mob creates this theatrical energy around a play that- let’s be honest can sometimes flag a bit in parts- makes this one of the best productions of Caesar I’ve seen. I love the mob, I love that Nick Hytner came up with both a venue and a staging that can do this to the play…I just don’t personally want to be a part of it.
People who love immersive theatre are sometimes a little too evangelical about it, and a little blind to those who don’t. I appreciate that it is a wonderful, possibly life changing experience to have a wonderful immersive experience. But perhaps for those who do, consider those extremes of emotion in reverse. What I and many others experience in the sector of ‘immersive’ theatre isn’t simply ‘mild dislike’ it’s often a scale of extreme discomfort to genuine fear. I can “do” Punchdrunk shows now because they have a set of “rules” that I feel comfortable with and a style I likewise am familiar with and can enjoy. The first time I saw one of their shows I very nearly didn’t go in and spent the first 15 minutes or so genuinely frightened. The Bridge production also has gained some criticism online for the manner in which it treats those in the Mob- comments about the rough handling of audience members, the way in which people are physically moved about- I can’t attest to any of that, but I do know it wouldn’t make me have a ‘fantastic’ experience, quite the opposite.
But the great thing about The Bridge’s choice of staging is that it gives the option. Immersive productions (fully or otherwise) are not the most inclusive of theatrical experiences. But by making this a production where audiences can ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ the benefit of the immersive aspect without having to take part.
Finally, though, in closing a note about how we talk about theatre. And of course, the Twitter 1%. My saying that ‘this style of audience is not for me’ does not in any way diminish the experience of people who do love it. I was told I was not allowed to ‘dismiss’ the immersive side of it having not experienced it. I’m not dismissing it, I’m (repeatedly) saying I think it was an integral and interesting part of the production. But I do not want to be a part of it. My opinion that I would not want that theatrical experience does not diminish or dismiss that experience for others. Had I hated the play or production itself, my opinion does not affect or change that of someone who felt the opposite. But equally while I should not (and was not) telling people their experience was ‘wrong’, I shouldn’t be taken to task for expressing my own opinion.
I’m also not claiming anything about an experience I did not have. Only an experience I did not wish to have. To mob or immerse or indeed to be interacted with at all by the actors is not for everyone. With all of these I can enjoy a production which includes these elements, I can appreciate what it brings to it. But personally, I like my actors on their own side of the fence.
Monday, 2 April 2018
Really excited to have my first 'Guest blogger' on this blog. My friend Nicole wrote such a fascinating post about the Jukebox musical I practically begged her to let me share it...so here it is. If you enjoy it please let me know- I'd love Nicole to share more of her theatre thoughts with the world!
My dirty love affair with the Jukebox Musical
Let me start with a confession: When "Mamma Mia", the mother of the modern jukebox musical, opened in 1999, I was the first one to declare how much I hated the idea of using existing pop music for a "new" musical. I was certain that "Mamma Mia" would not last long and I'd pick up some deeply discounted ticket a few months in to take a look at just how bad it was. Well, we know how that went. "Mamma Mia" became a smash hit and I was eventually persuaded by a friend who liked the show to fork out for a full-price ticket. And dang, I was greatly entertained, had a wonderful evening and came out of the Prince Edward Theatre with a big grin on my face and still humming "Dancing Queen". I didn't feel an urgent need to return, but I could understand why people liked it so much.
Next came "We will rock you" at the Dominion Theatre, which I felt so sceptical about that we opted for standing room behind the stalls. Again, I found myself liking it almost against my will. The power ballad "No one but you" still stands out as one of the most marvellous moments I had in a theatre and I will never forget the magical atmosphere during the finale when, from our vantage point behind the stalls, we could see everyone clapping and bopping along to Queen's perennial favourites "We will rock you" and "We are the champions". Yet WWRY received so much negativity from musical lovers and I felt ever so slightly dirty for liking these jukebox musicals, that I never returned either, despite its very long run.
Jukebox Musicals were here to stay
With Mamma Mia and WWRY taking the West End by storm, it's no surprise that a glut of jukebox musicals followed: "Our House", using the songs of Madness, even managed to tell a somewhat compelling tale, while "Tonight's the Night" based on the songs of Rod Stewart, flopped before I got to see it. I came to the conclusion that while I might well despise the laziness in using existing pop songs rather than composing a new score, at least these shows spun new tales. Sometimes these stories were rather clunky and the songs shoehorned in badly, sometimes they were actually engaging.
Why, I wondered, was this considered so much worse than adapting, say, a movie and throw a dozen hastily written and often uninspired songs at it? Sure, there was new music, but nobody had bothered to come up with a fresh and interesting tale. A few musicals based on movies managed to create something new and fresh – "Billy Elliot" stands out in my mind here – while others bored me rigid because it was really just the movie 1:1 slapped on stage (I'm looking at you, "Ghost"). Not much later things finally reached their nadir with the combination of existing movie and existing music: "Dirty Dancing" (which could have been a wonderful stage musical if given a new score that actually lets the characters sing), "The Bodyguard" with Whitney Houston's biggest songs and of course "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" using famous disco tunes.
The beginning of a love story
It was here my problems really began because, dammit if I didn't love "Priscilla" – the exuberance of the show, the imaginative costumes, the snotty Aussie humour and of course the glorious songs. While I normally don't return to see shows more than once in the West End because there are always so many new things to see, I ended up seeing Priscilla three times in the West End, the second and third times to drag friends along. Later I dragged my mother all the way to Amsterdam when the UK-Tour stopped there, because I also wanted her to see and enjoy it. There would have been a fifth visit in France, if the French tour had not been cancelled. Alas.
The final jukebox musical that broke my resistance once and for good was Jim Steinman's "Bat out of Hell". The moment this was first announced for Manchester (with a London run still uncertain at that point) I knew I had to see this. Meat Loaf along with Springsteen and Bon Jovi was the holy trifecta of early 80s rock for me and the music that I still consider, more than anything else, the soundtrack of my youth. And Steinman's epic Wagnerian rock especially just seemed made for the stage. So I went to Manchester and had a fantastic time. I staggered out into the interval physically winded by the sheer mind-blowing spectacle of the first act-finale "Bat out of Hell" and bopped along with everyone else when all pretense of a story was abandoned in the second act in favour of just rocking out to some of Steinman's greatest tunes. But once again, I felt like I shouldn't really be liking this so much. It was "only jukebox" after all, wasn't it? Never mind the epic stage set, the timeless music and the fabulous cast. Nope, I hardly dared confess how much I had enjoyed this.
I tried to file it away under "seen and done" and just followed the show's development through the successful run at London's Coliseum to Toronto, where finally, ,the return to London was announced. In the meantime a cast recording had been released and I soon found myself playing the thing to death. I'd scroll through the playlists on my phone and usually, inevitably, my thumb would alight on "BOOH" for a good dose of classic rock. And the more I listened to it and these new versions of Meat Loaf's great classics, the more defensive I grew about liking this. Why the hell not, I kept thinking, this is my music and these are some of the greatest rock songs in rock history, given a new lease of life with new arrangements and split across solos, duets and company numbers, why should this be worse than the banal unimaginative new showtunes being churned out on either side of the Atlantic with their forgettable "heard a thousand times before" music and clunky lyrics?
A new personal record
When bookings opened for BOOH's run at the Dominion, I booked just one ticket initially, "just to revisit the show and see what's changed since Manchester" because I knew they had worked on the show in Toronto. Then the disappointing casting for "Chess" was announced for the Coliseum run and I found that I really didn't want to waste my last free "slot" for this London trip on it. So I ended up booking BOOH again. For the first time ever in nearly 30 years of travelling to London I would see the same show twice during one trip – so great was my excitement to see it again. And more: I realized that the first booking period ended in late July and I wondered if that was when the original cast would be leaving, considering they had been with the show for one and a half year then since the first Manchester run. So I booked again for the last performance in case it will be their last performance and I wanted to say goodbye. And then decided to book another ticket just for the hell of it and just in case the show would be a flop this time and actually close that weekend. So I ended up with four tickets to the same show in three months, something I've never done before. But I realized that I didn't care anymore about the negativity towards jukebox musicals. I was finally ready to admit to my dirty love affair with jukebox musicals in public. I loved this thing, I had had a wildly entertaining evening in Manchester and I was gonna be back for more.
The jukebox musical vs the biography musical.
Now excuse me, while I go off on a tangent. This kind of jukebox musical – existing songs shoehorned into a new story (or in BOOH's case, actually forming the basis of the rather bizarre and convoluted "Neverland" musical Jim Steinman tried to write in the 60s before giving the music to Meat Loaf) is of course just one side of the jukebox story. The other side, which had been around way before "Mamma Mia" is the biography musical, that simply tells the story of a certain famous singer or band. "Buddy", about Buddy Holly, stands out in my memory as the most successful of them playing 14 years in the West End. Broadway came up with the massively successful "Jersey Boys", the story of the Four Seasons, which also had a great run in London.
Admittedly, I feel far more lukewarm about these than about the other kind. I feel that these are far more geared to the fans of a certain group/singer but if you have little interest in that person, why would you watch? I tapped my foot along to "Buddy" and "Jersey Boys" when I saw them each, but I had little interest in Buddy Holly or the Four Seasons and it's not my music style at all. Many other shows I didn't even bother to see because the artist in question and his/her music left me cold. Granted, I'm still half-tempted by the much-maligned "Thriller Live" that seems to have become the Icon of Evil for those who dislike jukebox musicals, partly because Michael Jackson was also part of the soundtrack of my 80s youth and partly because I think I would enjoy the dancing. For whatever you think of Michael Jackson, he was an incredible dancer and I'm sure I'd enjoy songs like the iconic "Thriller" performed live on stage. Yet, I haven't had the heart yet to actually see this show for myself, because it still feels dirty to like it.
Does it seem like there is a glut of this kind of biography musical? Yes, it does. It's obviously an easy way to make money. Just as with the movie-to-musical-adaptations that only required existing songs being thrown at an existing plot, it's fairly easy to tell the existing tale of a performer along with the performer's greatest hits. There are some musicals currently running or announced which I don't care for at all – "Beautiful" (Carole King's story) being a point in case or the newly announced musical about Cher, because I have zero connection to either singer. Others I'm mildly interested in, such as the Tina Turner Musical, because Tina was also part of my 80s soundtrack, though just as with Michael Jackson, not to the same extent as my own personal 80s rock music favourites.
Still, I can't blame people for wanting to see either jukebox or biography musicals anymore. For me it was BOOH that made me scream "That's my youth on stage there!" and wanting to see it over and over again. For others it may be Tina, the Four Seasons, The Kinks or even the Spice Girls. Why shouldn't producers try to cash in on it?
Which leads me to the last question I want to get to in this text: Why, apart from the nostalgia factor, are people so keen on hearing familiar stuff on stage instead of something new? And for me, the answer is sadly: Because musical theatre has failed them.
A "Memory" for the new millennium
Why am I saying this? Two recent things have brought me to this conclusion. The first: Hamilton. The second: Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unmasked" biography. Let me start with the latter. I became a musical fan through ALW's 80's blockbuster shows: "Starlight Express" and "Cats" were my first loves in musical theatre and ALWs early output (well, let's draw the line at 1993's "Sunset Boulevard") is still among my favourite musical theatre. Reading the biography now, it brought back so many memories (no pun intended). How "Jesus Christ Superstar" was well-known even in my shitty little home town in the 80s and how a local choir had had a great success with staging it several times. How "Don't cry for me Argentina" was one of my mother's favourite songs despite her never having seen a musical in her life. How a German version of "Take that look off your face" was a huge chart success, soon followed by the first German version of "Memory" when "Cats" opened in Vienna in 1983. These songs were everywhere. And whether it was "Cats" finally opening in Hamburg in 1986 or "Evita" or "Jesus Christ Superstar" coming on tour, people would flock to it, because they knew the songs and couldn't wait to see them performed live on stage.
I re-visited "Cats" after a long long break last autumn when the UK-Tour stopped here in Cologne for a brief run and I admit that "Memory" still sent shivers down my spine and that my eyes filled with tears when Grizabella belted out her "Touch me, it's so easy to leave me". And I'm sorry – this kind of deeply emotional reaction, of being completely swept up in a glorious tune, is something I've sorely missed in virtually every new musical of the last 10-15 years. There are decent tunes, to be sure, once in a while even a song that has really good lyrics that touch me, but it's nothing compared to how those old ALW hits of the 80's made me feel.
Musicals and pop culture
Which brings me to the second thing, Hamilton: Hamilton is the first musical in ages that seems to have transcended all boundaries of music – much like JCS did in the 70s. Kids that have never cared for musicals at all are suddenly rapping along with the American founding fathers, there are pop singles, parodies and mash-ups and it feels like Hamilton has become part of current pop culture along with wildly different things such as Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or K-Pop. I won't lie: I do like Hamilton and I enjoy the freshness of the style, the music, the brilliant lyrics and the clever storytelling, but I also feel that, having seen it twice, it's enough for me. It doesn't matter. Hamilton has reached people, especially young people, the way JCS or Hair reached people in the 70s and the big ALW tunes like "Memory" and later "Phantom of the Opera" people in the 80s.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has achieved the nearly impossible: He brought back musical into the mainstream pop culture after a long time that felt as if "musical theatre sound" had absolutely nothing to do with "popular music" anymore. I can see it in other shows, too, such as the wonderful little gem that's "Everybody's talking about Jamie", which also uses modern electro-pop sounds along with classic musical theatre ballads like "He's my Boy" (which, incidentally, was the first musical theatre power ballad in many years that gave me a similar emotional response as the likes of "Memory" back then and gripped me completely).
So, this is for me another explanation for the popularity of jukebox musicals: The quality of the songs. To bring this back to my current favourite: Jim Steinman had written the music that later became one of the best-selling albums in pop history for Meat Loaf with a musical in mind. Whether or not the current "Bat out of Hell" musical actually has a plot or not, is debatable. It doesn't even matter here in this argument. My point is: Steinman had – much like ALW with JCS later – written a single album full of incredibly good rock songs from power ballads like "Heaven can wait" via jaunty fun like "Paradise by the dashboard light" to the epic storytelling of "Bat out of Hell" itself. I can go and see this show and know I'll be in for 10-12 amazing songs. The last time I had this feeling in a conventional musical was when I revisited "Les Miserables" at the Queens Theatre to see Alfie Boe live as Valjean and realized just how many great tunes were (are) in that show, a show that's now more than 30 years old.
And apart from "Hamilton" and "Jamie" I can't think of any current musicals that really make me want to see them again simply for the music. I often listen to a new musical CD once or twice, then it starts gathering dust because it failed to grab my attention (the few exceptions, ironically, coming from pop backgrounds as well, such as David Byrne's "Here Lies Love" and Green Day's "American Idiot", which made their way into my all-time-favourites-playlist).
Where are the writers?
Maybe it's a personal thing, maybe it's just me reaching "midlife crisis" age and withdrawing into the music of my youth and the memories connected to it. But I can't help thinking that – as Hamilton and Jamie prove for me – that when the songs of a new musical are really good, they do make me want to listen to them again and again and they make me want to re-visit the show to experience them again live on stage and to see different performers tackle the roles (and songs).
So here's my thought: Write better original music for musicals again. I don't care whether it's to bring more contemporary music into musical theatre as Hamilton did or simply truly beautiful power ballads like "He's my boy", just write songs that immediately find their way into people's ears and aren't just forgotten again the moment you exit the theatre. In the meantime, I'm sorry, I'll be sticking with Steinman & Co. and hoping that the mind-blowingly crazy spectacle of "Bat out of Hell" will blow me away as much as it did last year in Manchester. I'm quite sure it will.
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