Top British theatre from your sofa
When a theatre production is filmed, you get the opportunity to see some great acting but you lose the very thing we love- theatricality. Something fundamental to theatre – people performing live in front of you- is lost when the fourth wall is replaced by a screen. In my experience, the best are those that enable you to concentrate on the acting, because the majesty of a big set filling your field of vision just doesn’t come across on film.
This is my choice of shows which have survived the transition best, either because you can still imagine being there at the performance, or because it has been filmed in a way that substitutes the qualities of film for those of theatre.
1. Hamilton (Disney+)
It could have been a disaster but the Broadway production of Hamilton with original stars Lin Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Junior was expertly filmed over three performances and edited together to perfection. If you love this show as much as I do, you will not be disappointed with the way the vigour and emotion are caught by the camera. It shows what can be done with sufficient resources.
By contrast, AppleTV+ offers the stage musical Come From Away. I was excited to see this become available. It’s one of the best stage shows of the last decade ( as you can see from my review) but here it’s an example of what’s worst about filmed stage shows, namely that it seems very stagey.
2. Sea Wall (seawallandrewscott.com)
Sea Wall is very simple film of a one man show. In this case it has been specially staged in a studio, but, and perhaps because of this, it is devastating as Andrew Scott speaks to camera and tells his tragic story. For a small charge, you can see it at seawallandrewscott.com
3. Fleabag (Amazon Prime)
Not the Fleabag TV series but the original stage play performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The two TV series are superior to this monologue, but to see Phoebe Waller Bridge sitting on a chair with no props and no other actors, simply speaking her lines, miming taking a photo of her genitalia, doing impressions of other characters, and, just as important, pausing, gives an absolute masterclass.
It forms part of British Theatre. Season One. You’ll also find Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, and the National Theatre‘s Frankenstein with Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, in which they took turns in playing the doctor and the monster. Amazon Prime has both versions.
No sign of Season 2
4. Beat The Devil (Sky Arts)
This November, Sky Arts are launching a season of British Theatre starting with David Hare’s recent Beat The Devil, a funny angry monologue about his near fatal Covid illness starring Ralph Fiennes. I saw it at The Bridge Theatre and have every hope that, because it is basically one actor and an audience, it will come across well.
5. Hymn (Sky Arts)
Sky Arts have been quietly picking up some excellent shows including Hymn, Lolita Chakrabarti’s study in masculinity starring Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani. Other treats on this channel include a film of the stage show Billy Elliot The Musical, Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith, a New York production of Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend and Alice Cooper, the 25th Anniversary Concerts of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. You could spend your entire viewing time for many weeks dipping into the treasures therein. Sky Arts’ biggest fault is that everything is lumped into one huge catalogue with no categories, so you have to scroll through hundreds of programmes, unless you know what you’re looking for. On the plus side, it’s free on FreeView.
6. Romeo & Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor (National Theatre At Home)
National Theatre At Home is a streaming service with a rolling selection of productions from the National Theatre and some other leading venues. The quality varies enormously but a rule of thumb is, the older it is the more likely it will be an uninspiring theatrical record rather than a proper film that uses cinematic techniques to convey the show. Even then, some come across better than others.
Romeo And Juliet with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor isn’t really a stage show, although it is treated as if it is. In reality, it was made as a movie, and, probably for that reason, although Shakespreare’s play is greatly cut, there is speed and passion in this version. By the way, you can watch it for free, just search for it on Sky Arts.
The less theatrical a production the easier it is to enjoy. So a straightforward play like the excellent Hansard or Under Milk Wood are better choices than, say, Amadeus which was brilliant to watch in the theatre with its orchestra on stage but not so interesting on screen.
There are some shows from the Young Vic, including two of the best plays I have seen in recent years: A View From The Bridge with Mark Strong and Nicola Walker and Yerma with Billie Piper, I was tempted to put them in my top 10 but neither can convey the purely theatrical elements which made them so good. In the case of Yerma, the production took place behind glass so the characters were like specimens and in A View From The Bridge, there was a sense of a family being trapped in a ring and an unforgettable coup de theatre at the end.
To try to persuade you to take a monthly subscription to National theatre At Home, the shows come and go. I suggest taking an initial month subscription and after that, pay for individual productions.
7. It’s True, It’s True, It’s True (digitaltheatre.com)
Digitaltheatre.com has a lot of good stuff. There are Royal Shakespeare Company productions aplenty, the Open Air Theatre production of Sondheim’s into The Woods with Hannah Waddingham as the Witch
David Suchet in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Manchester Royal Exchange’s Hamlet with Maxine Peake, but I would start with It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Breach Theatre’s dramatisation of the 1612 trial of the rapist of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It uses a transcript of the trial to show her own ordeal in a way that is at times shocking, and, with three women taking all the parts, at other times it’s an amusing parody of male attitudes. You can take a subscription to this streaming service, starting with a free trial, or rent shows individually.
8. In The Heights (Amazon Prime)
There are some good film versions of stage shows, as opposed to filmed stage shows. which have found their way onto streaming services. Lin Manuel’s In The Heights received mixed reviews but I thought it was a lot of fun. You miss the cinematic spectacle of the ensemble dance scenes when viewing on Amazon Prime, but it’s as uplifting as the stage show.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie has also slipped quickly onto Amazon Prime. It’s a well-made film but the musical, which works really well on stage when you’re carried along by the emotion of the music, is appears as a wish-fulfilment fantasy when distanced by a screen. This is underlined by the additional scene that recreates the LGBTQ world of the 90s and has more impact than the rest of the film put together.
Netflix has Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is a great play by August Wilson, but a classic example of the way you can get away with melodrama in theatre but not on film.
9. An Ideal Husband (marquee.tv)
marquee.tv, a specialist arts streaming service, offers a set of four Oscar Wilde plays, of variable quality in terms of the filming, but very well acted. The is An Ideal Husband with Freddie Fox, Nathaniel Parker and Frances Barber. And, if you love Shakespeare, marquee.tv offers a number of Royal Shakespeare Company productions including David Tennant’s Richard II and Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet and an enjoyable Twelfth Night with Adrian Edmonson. You’ll also find Donmar Warehouse’s all female Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
If Shakespeare is your food of love, you can get excess of it by tuning in to globeplayer.tv where dozens of Globe Theatre productions nestle. They tend to be bland in the filming but it’s always a pleasure to hear good actors get their tongues round the great man’s lines.
Uncle Vanya (BBC i-Player)
The BBC, despite its excellent track record in showing stage plays, has surprisingly little in its library. Still available, at least for a few more weeks, is Uncle Vanya with Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, an excellent version of Chekov’s masterpiece originally seen at the Harold Pinter. The BBC filmed it specially without an audience and you may find the closeups of the players come across better than when viewing it in a theatre.