Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley shine in fast-moving Shakespeare film
The National Theatre‘s Romeo & Juliet is another of the hybrids of theatre and film that have emerged during lockdown. In this case, William Shakespeare‘s play, directed by Simon Godwin, is a film but filmed in the Lyttleton Theatre and as if it’s a spontaneous development from the rehearsal room.
As film, it is beautiful. The backgrounds are nearly always plain , often grey or black. In fact the colours generally are blue or grey, with faces brightly lit from the side, appropriately like 17th century portraits. Credit for the design goes to Soutra Gilmour.
The two lovers are wild and rash, as they should be. Jessie Buckley is intense with passion, Josh O’Connor overwhelmed with emotion. They have great faces which is great for the close-ups. Their scenes together- the balcony, the wedding, the consummation (the film features a lengthy lovemaking only alluded to in the original play) are all believably romantic.
Thank goodness because this is a Romeo & Juliet that strips away all it can from the surrounding story of adults who should protect the youngsters but instead are misguided, self-centred and irresponsible. We also lose Shakespeare’s intention to emphasise the ultimate reconciliation of two warring factions as they acknowledge their part in the death of their young heirs.
Some of the most glorious poetry is filleted. There’s no ‘light from yonder window’ breaking in Emily Burns’ adaptation. Rather than rely on the verse that remains, there is a great deal of music, as if the makers didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey feeling. Having said that, the music, which includes Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is superb.
The editing of text and film means this Romeo & Juliet goes at a terrific pace which is good because, in this play, you need to be carried along by the speed with which the youngsters fall deeply in love, get married and (spoiler alert) commit suicide.
Of the older actors, I particularly liked Tamsin Greig, playing the part that was Lord Capulet in the original. She’s cold, calm, as softly spoken as a snake, verging on a pantomime villain.
Deborah Findlay as the Nurse and Lucian Msamati as Friar Laurence both convey the way the adults miscalculate the situation because of their own desire to meddle. The great Adrian Lester has so little to do as the Prince, because of the cuts, that a cynic might say he’s only there to provide a star name.
Romeo & Juliet can be seen on Sky Arts catch-up and on PBS on 23 April
Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia
I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.
Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.
There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.
It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.
And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.
The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.
The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband, Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.
‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.
The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.
There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.
The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.
I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.
Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation recently criticised the lack of opportunity given to black and minority ethnic performers in drama schools. If we don’t have more diversity in our theatres, we miss our opportunity to see the best possible shows on stage. So, let’s celebrate the people of colour who have made a major contribution to the stage musical.
10. Eubie Blake & Noble Sissel
These days blind casting, whereby, unless the part is written for a specific skin colour, you choose the best person for the role regardless of colour, has made a huge difference to the number of people of colour on stage. But racial discrimination was rife in the past. A hundred years ago, black performers were restricted to a few slots on the Broadway stage- no more than one act per show.
Frustrated by the situation, the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel, got together with some other black artists and wrote their own musical comedy Shuffle Along. They managed to hire a theatre right on the edge of the theatre district. The artists feared a reaction from white audiences against a portrayal of black people in romantic situations, but this was the beginning of the jazz age and audiences lapped up the genuine article.
Shuffle Along was a huge success running for 504 performances with many spinoffs. It launched or at least helped the careers of, among others, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. The biggest hit from the show was I’m Just Wild About Harry.
9. Adelaide Hall
Born in 1901, Adelaide Hall was a major star in the Harlem scene of the 1920s. In 1938, faced with a lot of prejudice in the States, she moved to the UK. A year later, just after the Second World War broke out, she took part in the BBC’s first live show to be broadcast worldwide. She became a British resident and it was here that she added musicals to her resumé. In 1951 she appeared in Kiss Me Kate and then two more West End musicals before returning to Broadway to appear in the Lena Horne vehicle Jamaica and in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Live concerts and recordings remained her big passion and in 2003 at the age of 102 she entered the Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s most enduring recording artist.
8. Sharon D Clarke
Sharon D Clarke is one of the UK’s leading ladies. She began her West End career as General Cartwright in 1996 in Guys And Dolls. Over the years she’s been Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Mama Morton in Chicago, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and the star of the National Theatre production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Probably most will remember her as Rafiki in The Lion King, a musical that did much to give opportunities to black performers. Her leading role in the Chichester production of Caroline, Or Change won her an Olivier Award, one of three she’s won. In 2017 she was awarded an MBE for services to drama.
7. Gary Wilmot
Gary Wilmot is another of the UK’s greatest musical stars. His musicals career began with the lead role in Me And My Girl in the West End. One of his earliest roles was as Joe in Carmen Jones, the musical in which Oscar Hammerstein wrote new lyrics for a black cast to Bizet’s music. In all he’s taken part in over two dozen musicals and played Fagin in Oliver!, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Flynn in Chicago. His brilliance at comedy roles may have held him back from the more serious parts his voice and acting ability make him more than capable of.
6. Ethel Waters
After she starred in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, there was a time in the 1930s when Ethel Waters was the highest paid performer on Broadway- that’s not highest paid black performer, that’s highest paid performer of all. She began to branch out into large and small screens and was the first African American to have their own TV Show. Her biggest hit on Broadway came in 1940 with Cabin In The Sky.
5. George C Wolfe
Director George C Wolfe has directed twenty Broadway shows from Jelly’s Last Jam featuring the music of Jelly Roll Morton in 1992 to Caroline, Or Change to the revival of Shuffle Along. Perhaps his most famous Broadway show is Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk which he conceived and directed in 1996. It tells the story of the black experience in America from slavery to hip hop primarily through the medium of tap, choregraphed by the great Savion Glover. Wolfe has received 23 Tony Nominations and won five. He also directs movies, most recently directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is up for an Oscar.
4. Paul Robeson
In the early days of Broadway, it was almost impossible for black people to get exposure on what was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Great White Way’. But some white creators of shows were determined that people of colour should have their proper place in stage musicals. George Gershwin, for example, wrote Porgy And Bess in 1935, with the bets of intentions despite subsequent criticism, and Oscar Hammerstein introduced people of colour and questions about racism into a number of his musicals.
Back in 1927, Hammerstein co-wrote Show Boat with Jerome Kern which was a groundbreaker, not only because it told a serious story but because it was the first musical to feature a mixed black and white cast on stage together. The part of Joe, a stevedore, was expanded as a showcase for my Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to take part in the Broadway premiere but when the show opened in London he took his rightful place in the cast. The show became the Theatre Royal’s most profitable production of the 20th century.
At a time when black actors were mainly playing servants, Robeson brought a much needed dignity to black acting, taking on major roles in cinema and on stage, including a legendary Othello.
3. Lea Salonga
The Filipina soprano Lea Salonga was the original Kim in Miss Saigon for which she won an Olivier Award. She reprised the role on Broadway and became the first Asian woman to win a Tony. It launched her career on Broadway where she also played the roles of Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She has continued to play leading roles on Broadway and in the Far East including Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Notably, she had a starring role in 2015 in the musical Allegiance which explored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2.
2. Audra MacDonald
Audra Macdonald is the first and only performer ever to win six Tony Awards.
Trained as an operatic soprano, her Broadway successes include her performance in the revival of Carousel back in 1994, Ragtime in 1998, 110 in the Shade in 2007, Porgy And Bess in 2012. Perhaps her greatest role was as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar And Grill in 2014.
We started in 1921 with a musical that brought the first all black cast to Broadway. A hundred years later, the biggest show on Broadway and the West End is another groundbreaking musical featuring a cast almost exclusively of people of colour. Thanks to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton has set a new standard for colour blind casting by employing mainly non-white actors to play people who were historically white. This casting provides a real and metaphorical illustration of the contribution of people from immigrant backgrounds can make to their adopted country, both in the USA but also here in great Britain. The number one is not one individual but all the casts that have made Hamilton a showcase for the talent of people of colour.
Two To Watch For
Here are two young people of colour destined to be major musical stars.
Miriam-Teak Lee had just left drama school when she blew everyone away with her performance in the Open Air Theatre production of On The Town. Then she got a part in the ensemble of original London production of Hamilton, followed by the lead role in the jukebox musical & Juliet, again giving a jaw-dropping performance for which she rightly for which she won an Olivier Award.
American Eva Noblezada has already played Kim in the 2014 London and subsequent Broadway revivals of Miss Saigon. She follows in the footsteps of Lea Salonga 25 years ago when she originated that role and has also followed her in playing Eponine in Les Miserables. Recently she played Eurydice in Hadestown to much acclaim. Hopefully we won’t lose her to the screen but her starring role in Yellow Rose was unforgettable.
You can see performances by many of the artists featured by visiting the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews and clicking on Playlists where you’ll find Top 10 People Of Colour in Stage Musicals.
The Box Office Radio podcast My Top Ten People of Colour in Stage Musicals presented by Paul Seven Lewis is available on mixcloud.com
Joanna Lumley & Alfred Enoch add gloss to digital Oscar Wilde
Despite it being co-produced by five regional theatres with the involvement of many more, The Picture Of Dorian Gray is not theatre. It’s not filmed theatre. It’s not a theatrical film. It’s not a theatre-film hybrid. It’s a film. A bit of an avant-garde film maybe, but a film. So here’s my film review.
The adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett of Oscar Wilde’s novel brings us into the present day where Dorian Gray has been transformed into a social media star by a new digital filter that makes him incredibly attractive. He is corrupted by his obsession with fame and his number of followers. ‘Your followers meant more to you than I did,’ his girlfriend says, or, as he says himself, he chooses ‘aesthetics over ethics’. While the filter keeps his digital face in the bloom of youth, his actual face starts to deteriorate rapidly.
Recalling what they remember of him and of what happened to him are Joanna Lumley silky-voiced as ever as an amoral Lady Narborough and Alfred Enoch as a believably bad influence called Harry, both speaking to an Interviewer played by Stephen Fry.
Their performances are excellent, and also Russell Tovey as Basil the man who invents the filter, although he appears less than the story would seem to demand.
A great deal of the film is in the form of people in isolation giving interviews or making calls or posting online, but it’s not some fuzzy set of zoom calls, it’s beautifully filmed in proper settings and from varied angles. There are cleverly cut sequences when Flashbacks are required, the main one conveying a party atmosphere very well. In fact, I found the filming and the cutting hypnotic, thanks I assume to director Tamara Harvey.
So far so good but here’s where my enjoyment started to buffer. Because, pleasant looking and charming in demeanour as Fionn Whitehead is, and good actor as he undoubtedly is, I just couldn’t understand why the other characters feel in love with this Dorian Gray or why he would attract hundreds of thousands of followers. I admit this may indicate my lack of understanding of the kind of people who do attract a massive following on Instagram and the like.
Of course, I speak as someone who has hundreds rather than thousands of followers on social media- and I did take to heart Basil’s declaration that ‘youth is one thing worth having.’ I thought ‘Okay, let’s try a theatrical suspension of disbelief’, but the problem was that, whether he was talking to his followers or to his friends, what came out of his mouth was vacuous and spoken in a flat voice. It may have been meant to indicate the innocence of youth but to me it was just dull.
I could have written this off as my lack of appreciation of things youthful except that I did find Emma McDonald who played Sybil, another rising social media star, entirely convincing in her voice and looks, and that was as much to do with her expression as the basic tools she was working with.
As a warning against the dangers of social media, Henry Filloux-Bennett ’s script covers a well-clicked search, and has little new to say. The novelty of the way it says it soon wears off but the acting and filming make it worth a view.
Chadwick Boseman gives towering performance in film of August Wilson’s play
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis is a film of a play written by August Wilson in 1984. Denzil Washington is one of the producers and he is known to be determined to bring all of the great playwright’s works to the screen. So how well did this play make the transition?
If you saw Fences which Denzil Washington himself starred in, you will have some idea of the style of this film, directed by George C Wolfe. It is more akin to a play being filmed, than a cinematic film, in that nearly everything happens on two sets. One is the recording studio, the other the green room in which the musicians chat and rehearse.
This needn’t be a bad thing. Film tells its story in pictures whereas theatre tells its story through people. And this is about people, two in particular. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is terrific. Ma Rainey is a successful blues singer in the Southern black community in the early 20th century. She knows where she stands and what she wants. She’s only in the recording studio because there is now interest in black music from northern white Americans and she can earn a buck from it.
‘They don’t care nothing about me, ‘ she says, ‘all they want is my voice’. If you know your musical history you’ll know that at that time people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin were starting to write ragtime jazz inspired by, or stolen from if you prefer, black music. By the way, the music is fabulous.
By contrast we have the late Chadwick Boseman’s horn player Levee. He’s a complex character, and for me the more interesting of the two. He is confident, indeed cocky, about his ability to play and compose music. Even though he would be outstanding purely on the grounds of his playing, he still feels the need to dress to stand out, from his sharp suit right down to his flashy shoes.
August Wilson shows us a time early in the twentieth century, when, although segregation was illegal in the north, racial prejudice and the sense that white people formed a superior class weren’t. There’s a moment when two of the black musicians step into a bar that’s full of white people. They turn around and leave.
Ma Rainey takes the lack of respect from white people in her stride, and just gets on with the job, and can’t wait to go home. Levee is more ambitious and sees opportunities in this new era where black music has a wider appeal – like the black bottom song and dance of the title.
The subtlety and authenticity of Mr Boseman’s performance reminds you of what a loss this man is to the world of acting. You see his brittle surface, but you soon find out about the trauma he suffered as a child as a result of white racism. So the actor conveys a tremendous feeling that there is a coiled spring just waiting to burst through the swaggering veneer. It leads to arguments in both the studio and the green room. And that tension runs throughout the play until its dramatic climax.
The only weakness is the one I mentioned earlier. This is a film of a play and whereas in the theatre you would be carried along by the sequence of events because you’re in the same room with the characters, those events seem a little melodramatic because of the separation of the screen.
So I don’t feel it’s quite a five star film but no question Chadwick Boseman gives a five star performance.
Typical offers us a day in the life of an ordinary man, a typical man, but the question is, is he a typical black man?
He gets up and gets dressed. He’s looking forward to the weekend, when he’ll see his boys. He fancies a night out so he goes to a disco. By the end he’s dying in a police station. Not so typical, but in Ryan Calais Cameron‘s play, ‘typical’ has many meanings and one is when they stereotype a black man .
It’s a one-man play and a huge burden is placed on the Richard Blackwood’s shoulders. There’s no set. He mimes, he mimics other characters, he speaks constantly in a stream of consciousness. The good news is that Mr Blackwood doesn’t give a typical performance, what he does is exceptional in the extreme.
Ryan Calais Cameron has written a poetic drama and Mr Blackwood is right on top of the rhythm of it. There’s a real love of language here, and there are joyful plays on words that he effortlessly gets his tongue round. For example, he talks of ‘sleep in the corner of the cornea’. He says, ‘Look here, I cook here, don’t need no damn book here’ and ‘I want to be inside the rave raving, instead of outside the rave, ranting and raving’.
There are many funny moments, especially when Richard Blackwood mimics the people he encounters. I laughed out loud as he confronted a police officer. The officer is saying, ‘Do you want to come to the station’. Our guy is saying ‘Do you want to take my statement’ and the two begin interrupting as each tries to have his say. Do you want to.. Do you.. in swift repartee, as all the while the tension rises.
Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directed the original play at the Soho Theatre and this screen version is filmed there so it retains a sense of theatre while making good use of close ups and quick cutting to different camera angles.
Our protagonist is quite an ordinary man but also very likeable. He can look after himself but he avoids trouble. When he experiences typical everyday racism, systemic racism if you like, he doesn’t rise to it, he even questions whether there is racist intent. Is the doorman making him wait because he’s black or simply because the place is full.
He still doesn’t avoid a serious racist attack. In the hospital a head injury has left him confused but the staff and police see what they want to see- a typical man- perhaps a typical black man- on drugs or drunk and frighteningly aggressive. The meaning of ‘typical’ moves from ‘everyday’ to ‘predictable’ to ‘expected’.
Once he’s arrested, the police beat him in the van. It is perhaps typical racist police behaviour or at least it’s nothing like as rare as it should be. The depictions of the beatings invite a visceral response, again all mimed by Mr Blackwood..
The police let him die. We see him die, before our eyes in deep close up, choking on his own blood,. It is shocking, horrific and deeply upsetting.
This is an imagined version of what happened, not to a typical black person but an actual man Christopher Alder in 1999. The last minutes of his life were recorded on CCTV at the police station. It led to a verdict of unlawful killing and an apology from the police force but no one was punished. It’s part of a pattern that sees a disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched, arrested, and dying in custody.
While that is important and Typical rightly brings attention to this outrage, it is important to say that this is a well acted, well constructed drama that uses language, humour and emotional empathy, to make us feel the pain of one man’s tragic end.
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass
Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.
It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.
At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.
The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.
Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’
In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.
For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.
Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent. I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.
The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.
It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.
In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.
I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.
Lorien Haynes’ play Good Grief lasts less than an hour but in that time it follows two people on an emotional rollercoaster as they suppress and express their feelings through various stages of grief.
The two, played by Sian Clifford (Claire in Fleabag) and Nikesh Patel, are mourning the death of his partner and her best friend. They have a deep affection for one another and, as they try to cope with the death of someone they both loved, they also attempt to support each other.
Good Grief is honest about the sadness and anger of bereavement, and if you have suffered the loss of a loved one, it is bound to hit home, but it isn’t depressing. It is a comedy with many amusing moments and much dark humour.
And it is a love story, or rather a love triangle. That’s because the question running through the play is how much should one respect the wishes of someone who has gone. I was going to say ‘who is no longer with us’ but she is ever present ,affecting what the two do and how they relate to each other.
Some people are calling this a play-film hybrid including Sian Clifford herself but I don’t think that’s a good description. For me, it is simply a play that’s been filmed. Yes, it’s not filmed in a theatre or with an audience, but the simple makeshift set is very clearly theatrical in that it lacks the realism that you would expect in a film.
What you do get and benefit from is close-ups. There’ are many emotions flitting across their faces, especially Sian Clifford’s. She has a great ability to convey the complexities of, say, a nervous laugh or a bemused empathy and to the change between the two in the blink of her eye. Nikesh Patel‘s character wears his mood changes on his sleeve, which is not to say his performance is any less impressive.
It’s a well written script with natural, rhythmic language. However it ‘s clearly intended for characters in their twenties, whereas these two excellent actors are in their thirties. While it’s relatively easy to act younger than you are on a stage, close-ups make age much harder to disguise on screen.
My only other reservation is the presence of the crew. You see them reflected in a shiny cycle helmet, you see them between scenes. I don’t what the point of that was. To remind us it’s a film? To remind us it’s theatre? I don’t think would be in any doubt about either. It seemed to be a form of alienation at odds with the intimate style of the play.
The play is sensitively directed by Natalie Abrahami, by which I mean there are no gimmicks and the actors are given space to express their emotions.
The Top Ten Bestselling Stage Musicals as featured on Box Office Radio
This top ten doesn’t go by the money the productions have taken at the box office or length of run or all the different productions added together. This list is based on the number of tickets sold worldwide by the same production. TIt’s not completely reliable because the figures tend to be supplied by the producer. All the entries date from the 1980s onwards because very long runs are a relatively modern phenomenon, starting really with the megamusicals of Lloyd Webber and Cameron mackintosh. To give you an idea, one of the greatest musicals of all time, Oklahoma! which back in the 1940s held the title of the longest-running Broadway musical had a mere 2212 performances. By contrast, the first megamusical Cats had 8949.
10= Starlight Express (25 million tickets worldwide)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express would have been much higher but for its relatively short run on Broadway. On the other hand, it’s been greatly helped by its run at the Starlight Express Theatre in Bochum Germany where it’s been seen by 17 million people. A romance featuring railway trains may seem a strange subject for a musical but behind that and the roller skating spectacular, there are some great songs.
10= Jersey Boys (25 million tickets worldwide)
Jersey Boys is the second most successful jukebox musical ever. It’s based on the story of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons and it’s a cut above the typical musical biography with each of the four band members telling a section of their story from their point of view.
9 Chicago – 1996 revival (31 million tickets worldwide)
Chicago made little impact when it premiered in 1975 but when it was revived in 1996 it became a huge hit. It is not only the longest-running revival in Broadway history but its longest-running American musical. (Incidentally, there are only 4 American musicals in this top 11.) The revival while still using the basic Bob Fosse choreography stripped down the design- and the women. So while the original female performers wore showgirl and flapper outfits, now they were in what was essentially sexy underwear. And it was marketed with striking black and white images that emphasised its erotic qualities. Souvenir programmes were snapped up by theatregoers who clearly appreciated the quality of the photography.
7= Miss Saigon (35 million tickets worldwide)
Miss Saigon is the first of two entries from writers Alain Boublil and Claud-Michel Schoenberg. No prizes for guessing what the other is. Based on Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the story of a mother’s love and sacrifice.
7= Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (35 million tickets worldwide)
Beauty And The Beast marked Disney’s first foray into live musicals, apart that is from the mini shows they would put on in their theme parks. In fact the director Robert Jess Roth came from the theme parks but he stepped up to Broadway as if born to it and his production was both faithful to film and a proper stage musical. Linda Woolverton who had been the first woman to write a Disney animated feature screenplay, adapted and expanded her script for the stage show. Tim Rice added lyrics to six new songs composed by Alan Menken who had written the songs for the original film with the late Howard Ashman. Then the stage musical became a movie.
6 Wicked (55 million tickets sold worldwide)
Wicked by Stephen Schwartz is based on a book called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which was both a prequel and a sequel to The Wizard Of Oz. The main character is Elphaba and, if you haven’t twigged, L F B are the initials of L Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard Of Oz. The story of a young woman who rebels against the system and is labelled a wicked witch was immediately popular with the teenage girl market but there was a much wider appeal to anyone who identifies with an outsider fighting for truth and defending liberty (and who doesn’t?).
Before I move on to my top 5 best selling stage musicals, I’d just like to mention a couple of other contenders who didn’t make the list.
5 Mamma Mia! (65 million tickets worldwide)
Mamma Mia! is the best selling jukebox musical of all time. Unlike Jersey boys, it’s not a biography but the kind of jukebox musical that takes a songbook and turns it into a story. In this case, it no doubt helped that the songbook belonged to ABBA but much of the credit goes to writer Catherine Johnson. She made the songs seem like they’d been written for this fun tale of a girl who is getting married and wants to meet the three men who could be her father.
4 Les Miserables (70 million tickets worldwide)
It’s back to Cameron Mackintosh and Boublil and Schoenberg with help from English translator Herbert Kretzmer for our number 4 best selling stage musical Les Miserables. This story of atonement is the West End’s longest running musical ever with over 14,000 performances.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is the musical that led the British invasion of Broadway in the 80s. It began as a song cycle before Cameron Macintosh took it by the scruff of the neck and helped transform it into a fully fledged musical. It’s the ultimate tourist attraction, offering spectacle and memorable songs without much of a plot. That’s not to put it down, it did win both Tony and Olivier Awards for Best musical. And the spectacle was impressive. It was not only the first megamusical, it began the phenomenon of identical productions playing throughout the world. In Germany, it had over 6000 performances and in Japan over 10,000.
It’s interesting that back in the 70s and 80s the Arts Council of Great Britain undertook a ‘housing the arts’ programme that involved large sums of money being spent on building or refurbishing large scale theatres to enable the country to see the very best opera and ballet. But it wasn’t long before commercial theatre companies saw the opportunity to recreate their magnificent London productions before very large regional audiences.
2 Disney’s The Lion King (100 million tickets sold worldwide)
The Lion King is the only non-British musical in the top 5. Disney had seen the success of the megamusicals and decided to pull out all the stops when they mounted their second stage musical. The Lion King by Elton John and Tim Rice was already Disney’s most successful animated feature. The company made the bold move of employing a director whose previous experience was mainly in shows involving puppetry. Julie Taymor put on what amounted to a huge puppet show but the gamble paid off. Taymor won Tony Awards for both her direction and her costume design. The show is still running both on Broadway and in the West End and it is the number one musical for worldwide box office income- an extraordinary eight and a quarter billion dollars.
1 The Phantom Of The Opera (130 million tickets worldwide)
What has made Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera so popular? For a start, whereas his earlier shows used songs which are often pastiches of various musical genres, in Phantom Lloyd Webber went into full operatic mode. It’s sung-through so it is the music that really tells this melodramatic story. You feel the disfigured opera lover’s obsession with Christine, and the romantic young love between Christine and Raoul. And all the while, there is a real sense of danger, with Lloyd Webber using that dramatic Phantom motif of the descending notes Dah – da da da da dah at key moments to send a shiver down your spine, very much like the dum-dum-dum- dum signalling the arrival of Jaws. Lloyd Webber has never done better, nor indeed has anyone else. Of course, we can’t rule out the chandelier as an element of its success. It occupies centre stage as the show opens and famously crashes down at the end of the first act. It is probably the all-time greatest coup-de-theatre.
Oh Calcutta! clocked up 5959 performances on Broadway which puts it in at number 8 in the top ten longest running Broadway musicals. It’s interesting that this British show which was staged to celebrate the end of theatre censorship in Britain should have proved so popular with the Americans. It was described as an erotic revue and, as well as songs, featured sketches by among others Samuel Beckett and John Lennon, plus a lot of nudity.
Blood Brothers didn’t make the worldwide top ten of best selling musicals but it did notch up over 10,000 performances in the West End, making it the third longest-running musical in West End history. Blood Brothers had had one run in the West End before Bill Kenwright relaunched it, after which Willy Russell’s story of twins separated at birth ran for 24 years. Which is why Blood Brothers is also the longest-running West End revival.
Let’s face it, for many of us, the only way we’re going to get to see some theatre in the foreseeable future is on a screen, either online or on TV. So here are the best theatre shows that you can watch in your own home.
All my recommendations come with a health warning. This is because films of stage shows rarely convey what makes theatre unique. Film can offer highly realistic spectacle whereas spectacle in a theatre requires more imagination. On the other hand, its physical reality in the form of a massive set or two dozen dancing feet can be eyepopping, and the physical presence of actors performing in front of you creates a tension that can’t be replicated in a film where things are re-filmed and edited to predictable perfection. Also, what seems totally natural when you’re watching it- the louder voice, the bigger gesture- looks totally unnatural when you see it on a screen because the language of film is about small facial expressions in close-up and words delivered at conversational levels.
Experienced theatre goers can of course allow for this but I worry that people new to theatre will simply think how ‘stagey’ it all is.
Top of my list is Hamilton. It’s one of my favourite musicals so disappointment at a film version was almost inevitable but, against all my expectations, the film of the Broadway show is a triumph. It remains a theatrical show but the music and movement carry you along. As a bonus, you get to see the original cast including Lin-Manuel Miranda. Even if you’re not interested in Toy Story and Frozen, take a month’s subscription to Disney Plus, just for Hamilton.
Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s classic play about getting old and wasted time and unrequited love, sensitively modernised by Conor McPherson, was having a phenomenally successful run at the Harold Pinter Theatre when Covid cut it short. So the producers decided to film it and what we get is not simply the play filmed but a stage play enhanced by film. In some ways, because the cast can speak normally and to camera, it’s better than the original and that’s saying something of a production that got pretty much universal five star reviews. The leads Toby Jones, Richard Armitage and Roger Allam live up to the epithet ‘stars’. It’s on BBC4 at 10pm on 30 December and then I assume on BBC iPlayer.
Sea Wall by Simon Stephens starring Andrew Scott is another stage play specially filmed without an audience. It’s a one man show in which the camera barely wavers from looking at Scott as he recounts a tragic event that engulfed him. It is devastating as a play and in no small part because of the visceral performance by Andrew Scott. and you can buy it for about £5.00. Find out more at seawallandrewscott.com
A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic
One of the most anticipated Christmas shows in recent years has been the annual revival of the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol. This year’s Scrooge is Andrew Lincoln. I saw the show a couple of years and it was one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve spent in a theatre. I was a little worried when I heard that the Old Vic were streaming it because the production relies so much on being an immersive performance where actors and props are coming at you from all directions. However what the Old Vic are doing, even though the theatre is closed to the public, is to continue to stage live performances until Christmas Eve and stream them. Again, like Uncle Vanya, they can adapt it for the camera. Some of the best bits of immersion, such as all the food flowing from the circle to the stage, can’t be conveyed, and some of the use of Zoom is clunky, but it’s still an uplifting experience. Tickets are available from oldvictheatre.com
Lots of enterprising theatres have made their pantos available online including the National Theatre’s Dick Whittington. It’s radical, it’s politically correct and rather garish but an excellent production. You watch Dick Whittington for free on their YouTube channel from 3pm on Wednesday 23 December, then available on demand until midnight on Sunday 27 December. More details here on the National Theatre website.
For me the panto to watch with the family this Christmas is Peter Duncan’s traditional Jack And The Beanstalk. He understands panto and does everything you’d expect from a panto, including lots of audience participation. It may be old fashioned in many ways but I found that rather comforting in these troubled times, like a Christmas pudding- and its saving the planet theme is bang up to date.
I’ll mention a couple more children’s shows that the whole family can enjoy. The Wind in The Willows with a script by Julian fellowes and an hilarious performance as Mr Toad by Rufus Hound can be streamed for £4.99 from willowsmusical.com And you can watch the delightful Timpson The Musical in which gigglemug Comedy imagine how the high street cobblers came also to cut keys by portraying the warring houses of Montashoes and Keypulets united by a pair of star-crossed lovers. And that’s free on YouTube.
Lots of arts streaming services have been springing up this year, the biggest of which from a theatre goer’s point of view is NationalTheatreAtHome who are gradually making available their vast archive of productions. Right now you can watch Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, Helen Mirren’s Phedre, Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear in Othello, and for one month only War Horse (in the UK only). There are many more National Theatre productions and some by other theatres including the Young Vic’s Yerma. This is one of the best stage productions I’ve seen but I’ve no idea how it will come across on film, since the set involved viewing through a glass careen with the rest of the audience opposite, giving the effect of a fish tank. Still, it should be worth seeing if only for Billie Piper’s performance of a lifetime as the anguished would-be mother.. You can rent individual shows or take a monthly subscription at just under £10.
Other streaming services worth looking at are digitaltheatre.com which hosts the excellent Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, which I thoroughly enjoyed in the theatre) , Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet in All My Sons, Richard Armitage in The Crucible, the Regents Park Open Air production of Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods and Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True which is a funny but shocking dramatization of the trial of the man who raped painter Artemisia Gentileschi which turned into a trial of herself. That alone would be worth a month’s subscription of £9.99 but you can rent it as a single film for £7.99.
At Stage2View you can rent such treats as 42nd Street, Kinky Boots, An American in Paris and Red starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko. Each costs £5 or so.
Amazon & Netflix
Finally, if you subscribe to Netflix, check out Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film of August Wilson’s play which stars Viola Davis
Over on Amazon Prime, try Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over. Inspired by Waiting For Godot, it’s about two men who are trapped by being black and persecuted by the police. It was filmed by Spike Lee in front of a live audience and Mr Lee knows how to make theatre work on film.