Update on uncomfortable venues and arts funding
I know this column sometimes puts the cat amongst the pigeons. But pigeons don’t usually get killed by the cat – they only get their feathers ruffled a bit. Just the other day I blogged here about my resolution not to grace Trafalgar Studios 2 with my presence anymore, and already I’ve had one anxious producer, who has a show going in there next month, begging me to change my mind.
But if my word is going to mean anything, I can’t. The venue charges its producers enough by way of rental, and it really should be up to operators ATG to turn this hellhole into something more comfortable. At the moment, it is selling fringe values at West End prices. When you go to the White Bear, for instance, you expect a level of rough-and-ready discomfort – it’s part of the experience. But at the Trafalgar Studios, there’s an opportunity to create something better. Instead, it’s the cheapest looking, most uncomfortable venue in town, with some of the worst sightlines.
In another note regarding this blog, it has been pointed out to me by an arts council official that, far from proving that there is another way to subsidy, the special Critics’ Circle Theatre Award to Shakespeare’s Globe that I blogged about yesterday was also partly facilitated by subsidy, with the Globe to Globe festival being part of the Cultural Olympiad. I am happy to set the record straight.
Getting personal in reviews, and plays that reflect a personal thing
I also wrote yesterday how, while a personal note may occasionally make it’s way into a review if it adds context, I reserve personal revelations for this blog. Regular readers will know of my own recent hip replacement surgery (not helped, of course, by those seats at Trafalgar 2 that have made me so grumpy!) and although the surgery was a huge success, I’m not out of pain yet.
While the operated hip is now entirely fine, the discomfort seems to have shifted to the other, non-operated side, as I’ve over-compensated and made that side carry too much of my weight instead. (There’s also the small matter of carrying too much weight, too: as I’ve not been able to go the gym for the last 9 months, I’ve managed to bring back some of the weight I’d previously lost, but am working to shed it again!)
So it was, with no little sense of wonder, that as I was trying to get up the other day at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, I found that the person offering me a helping arm to rest against was Blanche Marvin! Blanche turned 88 yesterday and today we’re celebrating with a birthday lunch in her honour.
Plays sometimes strike deeply personal chords, too. There’s a wonderful moment in Alan Bennett’s People that still has me chortling with recognition when I think about it. Frances de la Tour’s character confesses that she once fell behind in her reading of the daily papers – and is still trying to catch up, hence the mounds of old papers in a room. My flat is sometimes like that, too. When I shared that thought with Nick Hytner, who directed People, he commented, “We are all Frankie de la Tour in one way or another.”
Supporting new musical talent
Next Thursday the Arts Foundation, which exists to help artists and celebrate the existence of art, is to make its annual Arts Foundation Awards that give direct financial support to emerging individual artists of £10,000 to help them to continue working in their field. To declare an interest, this year I played a small personal role in the process, nominating a possible candidate for the composition for musicals award.
A judging panel that comprised Stratford East’s Kerry Michael, Nick Allott (managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Ltd) and Carol Metcalfe (founder of the Bridewell) then drew up a shortlist from the longlist of nominated artists, and I’m glad to say that my nominee is on the final list that comprises Pippa Cleary, Gwyneth Herbert, Dougal Irvine and Christella Litras.
I have to admit that Litras is a new name even to me, but it is striking just how much good young talent is around. As a member of the board of Mercury Musical Developments, I am actively involved in promoting and facilitating that talent already, but as a critic I also try to support and review the work as much as I can. So it was dispiriting that, as a judge for the Offies (the OffWestEnd.com awards), we were unable to draw up a shortlist of possible candidates for the Best New Musical category at all, but had to declare an outright winner for the only show that was worthy of the prize instead (Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale, which received its professional premiere at the Landor).
I am also regularly approached by budding writers for support and advice, and try to give it whenever I can. I can’t, of course, wave a magic wand and get shows produced, or indeed offer unconditional critical support for them when they are, but at least I’m listening. The Arts Foundation awards prove that others are listening, too.
Will the death of the High Street affect theatres?
The progressive collapse of the high street that has been accelerated in the last week by the fate of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster means that the communal shopping experience is fast evaporating. Of course things are cheaper online, where the retailers don’t have to pay rents or rates (or in many cases, British taxes). And its more convenient, too – you don’t have to be fleeced by local councils demanding high parking charges when you shop from home.
But where will this leave theatres, particularly those who depend on the footfall of pedestrians and a lively, safe local environment to be part of? Will theatres be the last places standing? In the amazingly short-sighted cuts of arts funding by local councils like those in Newcastle, they’ve failed to see what an economic driver the local arts have been there in regenerating the area.
And let’s not forget how miserable Times Square was in the 80s, when theatres were the last places standing, but few were actually operating. The wholesale clean-up of the area has meant that it now both a thriving retail and entertainment centre; each has benefited the other. And Broadway’s renewed health has been central to it.
Quote of the week
From a Times interview by Libby Purves with Freddie Fox, now appearing in the West End transfer of The Judas Kiss to the Duke of York’s, on the changes he’s had to think about as a result of the move from Hampstead:
In a smaller space like the Hampstead the audience can see round the sides, achieve that feeling of looking through a keyhole at another age, intimate moments. Here there’s a huge proscenium arch and you’ve got to project into that dead area under the overhang – reaching the Circle is easy but you’ve really got to think of the back stalls.