Short Shorts 77: More notes, quotes and tweets from the West End and beyond

Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner in The Book of Mormon. Photo: Joan Marcus
Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner in The Book of Mormon. Photo: Joan Marcus
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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The Book of Mormon officially opened last night, so you can read the official reviews today (including mine here on The Stage).

But critics have already been elbowed out of the way by the eager rush of Twitter reviews, and the producers have not only openly solicited them via a #lovemormon hashtag, but – as I have previously mentioned – have gone on to publish them in full page quotes ads all over the press.

But this week the faltering Viva Forever! went one stage further: it suddenly published a full page ad of alleged twitter quotes (but unlike the Book of Mormon ones, are not attributed, so we'll never know if that's what's actually been said). One of the words used is exactly the same as one used in The Book of Mormon Twitter ad: "Amazeballs."

Other quotes like #fivestarbrilliance and #whatdothecriticsknow sound like they're throwing the gauntlet again at the critics.  This one is happy that the show is giving some people apparent pleasure, but can I see the evidence, please, of where the quotes have come from?

And I'm shocked, too, that they've so brazenly stolen The Book of Mormon's own advertising campaign. If you can't beat them, join them, I suppose. But Dewynters – the West End advertising and marketing company for whom I once worked myself – are behind both. So perhaps they simply had the same idea twice.

Great Expectations, But a Not-So-Great Run

It was announced on Wednesday that the stage version of Dickens's Great Expectations that transferred to the West End last month after an extensive national tour is to close a week tomorrow, two months ahead of its original schedule.

It's always sad when a production fails, especially when producer Bruce Athol MacKinnon comments that it was "achieved  only with the extraordinary support of a group of private investors - none of whom had previously invested in theatre." That won't, presumably, encourage them to take the leap again.

But the production broke new ground when it did its own version of NT Live to broadcast a live performance the night after the opening to 120 cinemas around the UK and Ireland, where The Stage reported that it was seen by around 7,500 people and took around £80,000. Obviously there's a filming and technology cost to that, but it meant the production reached more people in one night that it would in a capacity week at its home theatre (where it has 690 seats, so only 5,520 people could have seen it, and not from as good a vantage point as the film would have afforded).

And that film version now lives on as a permanent record of the production, for which further screenings are still being held: MacKinnon also revealed plans for "over 780 screenings across the United States from 21 March, allowing a new audience to engage with the West End experience. Beyond that, we distribute to Hong Kong, Croatia, South Africa, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Germany."

All of which is very admirable. However, it is necessary to correct one widely distributed mistake: MacKinnon has claimed that this is the first time Dickens novel has been seen as a full-length play in the West End. However, Richard Linford, a producer and writer, has told me that it was seen at the Little Theatre in John Adam Street in 1939, before the theatre was bombed in 1941 (and subsequently demolished in 1949), in a production that starred Alec Guinness. Linford tells me that David Lean's wife Kay Walsh, whom he is currently writing about, took Lean to see it, so it may well have inspired Lean's subsequent celebrated 1946 film version.

Prices that leave me punchdrunk

People routinely complain about the price of West End theatre tickets, and it's true: they're not cheap, with West End musicals now coming in at up to £67.50 and plays up to £59 (excluding premium tickets and of course the compulsory add-ons of booking fees and restoration fees).

But those are top prices, not bottom, and most West End productions now try to appease their consciences with far more accessible offers like day seats (£10-£25) or, in the case of The Book of Mormon, a daily lottery, or even, in the case of Michael Grandage's season at the Noel Coward, a bottom price of £10 for seats throughout the house that can be bookable in advance.

So it was a huge surprise to me to see that Punchdrunk, the experimental theatre company, are charging up to £47.50 to see their new show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable that will opens at an undisclosed central London building in June. At that price, it is coming perilously close to a West End experience; though of course their work is supposed to be the antithesis of that.

I accept that their shows don't come cheap to make; but Punchdrunk is one of the Arts Council's National Portfolio organisations, and their co-producers on the show are the National Theatre, the most funded of all Britain's subsidised theatres. So I'm wondering how it is that Punchdrunk are justifying these prices to their funders.

A diary gap to support new musical theatre writing

I know I routinely point out some of the pressures of my schedule and the endless run of openings that mean I just can't see everything. I also regularly say it is a nice problem to have, so I'm not complaining.But it is particularly acute for me at the moment as I recover from spinal surgery I had just last week; and yes, I have already returned to work, but I'm on a severely reduced schedule.

I am of course still being inundated with requests on a daily basis to cover shows. So it struck me a peculiar novelty when I asked the producers of a one-off cabaret show on Sunday if I could come to see it, and they directed me to the box office instead to buy a ticket.

"We only have a very small guest list for the CD investors and sponsors and I am unable to offer any further complimentary tickets," they wrote. That's, of course, entirely their call, but they had previously sought me out to write a news story on the show, and said, "This is a reach out for any support you can offer before the event to spread the word.... An official invitation to the concert will be in sent in due course and I really hope you can make it."

I had written the advance story as requested (and made editorial changes they subsequently requested owing to the lack of clarity of their press release, too); but now that I attempted to follow through on that interest, I was rebuffed. Of course, I can't now write about the CD or its launch as I won't be there.

Again, they may not want any further publicity; but it turns out that I wasn't the only one sent to the box office. I was also contacted on Twitter by someone who had appeared on the CD – for free! – and was directed to buy a ticket, too. (She had also bought an electronic version of the CD since she hadn't been given that yet, either, though the composer concerned insists he was bringing them over with him from New York to give to contributors when arrived).

As it happens, I am delighted that I am now able to support another pair of young New York composers instead, who are making their London debuts on Sunday at the Hippodrome, Sam Carner and Derek Gregor with their show Sing But Don't Tell, and a stellar line-up that includes the fantastic Julie Atherton (London's keenest supporter of new musical theatre writing), Keith Jack and Mark Rice-Oxley, the latter of whom is producing the concert as well.

As a long-time champion of new musical writing, I was torn between this event and the other one anyway. I'm glad the choice was made for me.

7 Comments

  1. I think £47.50 is cheaper than both Masque of the Red Death and Duchess of Malfi (I seem to recall they were something like £55 and £60). It is a lot of money, but I’ve heard some facts and figures on what their shows cost, and I don’t think any of them are getting rich out of it!

  2. Perhaps a journalist will investigate and report on Punchdrunk and the NT’s pricing model, rather than idly wonder. I trust that they would be satisfied that income is budgeted to cover expenditure.

  3. I have a feeling that Mormon actually stole the idea from Viva Forever as they had run a similar campaign earlier in their run. Clever people.

  4. Interesting the comment on the price of the new Punchdrunk tickets.

    After eagerly waiting with my mouse to book as soon as they went onsale – it is only after picking a date to attend are you face with the choice of £39.50 (for midweek) or £85 for premium which includes an extra prologue at the start and access to extra parts once you’re inside.

    Even in the cheap seats at the theatre you get to at least be present for the whole performance – this feels a little like being asked to leave at the interval unless you pay the premium!

    I’d be interested to compare and contrast with someone who has premium access with what the ‘cheap’ seats get.

  5. Help me to understand this please Mr Shenton.
    You don’t like the high prices of a National Portfolio show with a large cast where actors and backstage staff are all paid proper industry rates, yet you have no qualms about large cast fringe musicals where their contemporaries and backstage staff are paid nothing?

  6. There are bargains in the West End, though you have to be on the alert to find them. Last week I paid £10 to see Old Times (admittedly from a restricted view seat) but it was still a bargain for theatre of this quality. I was also struck by the high prices for Punchdrunk. Young adventurous theatregoers who like this sort of show may find it unaffordable.

  7. The Book of Mormon has, via its relationship with Twitter, developed an international campaign using tweets in their marketing and advertising campaigns. That campaign was brought to Dewynters by The Book of Mormon, it was an error on Dewynters part to use a tweet based campaign for another client and we have apologised to The Book of Mormon for doing so.

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