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Headlines of the week: from the death of a young actor to the predicted demise of The X Factor and The Late Show, plus operatic battles on and offstage

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Last week a Twitter appeal started doing the rounds for help to track down a young man who had gone missing in Cambodia, using the hashtag #helpfindtomhare. His acting name was Tommy Vine, and when I looked him up on Twitter (where he was @TommyVine11), I discovered that he had been following me.

And when I checked his CV on his agent’s website, I saw that he was in the last production of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing I saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in December 2011, which is when he must have started following me, too, as I saw it and tweeted it at the time.

On Saturday, the story reached a sad end, with the discovery of his body in a river. Young deaths are always sad, but this one has a particular poignancy for me as he’d peripherally entered my life and was clearly a young man of considerable promise.

When I tweeted the news I said:

Amongst the replies were ones from playwright Jonathan Harvey who added:

And my fellow critic Matt Trueman noted:

And he also made me think of previous young actors I’ve seen in productions of Beautiful Thing who’ve happily gone on to more than fulfill their early promise, from Jonny Lee Miller who played Ste in the original 1993 production at the Bush to Andrew Garfield (who played his next door neighbour friend Jamie) at the Sound Theatre in 2006. Tommy Vine was following in their footsteps until last week.

X Factor heads to the stage just as TV exit predicted

Last week Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment and Stage Entertainment confirmed their plans to bring (the awkwardly titled) X Factor – It’s Time to Face the Musical! to the stage. Even if one’s scepticism had not already been aroused by the fact that Viva Forever seems to have got their first with a plot also based on an X Factor type talent show, that show is also already heavily discounting tickets now (as I wrote here just the other day).

But the cover to Saturday’s Guardian Guide might have also given one additional pause. 

Under a full page banner logo called “The Ex Factor”, the strap line below it asked aloud, “Is the TV talent show dead?”

In the feature inside the magazine, Peter Robinson pointed out,

In 2012 both The X Factor’s season launch and season finale ratings were at their lowest since 2006. Meanwhile, the BBC’s latest foray into talent shows The Voice saw its own ratings slump by a third during its time on air, couldn’t launch a single top 20 hit, and had to cancel its tour due to poor ticket sales.

Huge talent shows start to look less unstoppable when they’re not so huge and don’t feature any talent; and increasingly, through sheer ubiquity, they’re event television which no longer feels like an event…

…The genuine excitement that rippled through the nation during that first Pop Idol is long gone. To put it in philosophical terms: if a troupe of dogs dances to a dubstep medley but there’s nobody watching, does Amanda Holden hitting her red button really make a BRNNNK sound?

The question therefore inevitably arises if the theatre is now coming too late to the party with its attempt to parodize something that has already become a parody of itself. But I’m not going to write it off just yet, as the producers have signed on a good bunch of theatrical collaborators to bring it to the stage – from writer Harry Hill and composer Steve Brown (who wrote one of the best original British musicals of the 90s in Spend Spend Spend, but is yet to have another West End entry), to director Sean Foley (whose success with The Play What I Wrote, or rather in his case, the play what he co-wrote, has to be counter-balanced with the failures of Duckstatic! and last year’s misfiring West End revival of What the Butler Saw) and Olympics designer Es Devlin.

The Review Show relegated to BBC4 and goes monthly

In its increasing marginalisation of cultural coverage, the BBC has firmly put the nail in the coffin of another of its signature programmes: The Review Show, after twenty years on mainstream TV, has been consigned to BBC4, and a once-a-month slot instead of a weekly one.

There it will probably be quietly forgotten about; and instead of chronicling the shifting cultural changes and tastes of the nation, or at least of its highly partial panel, has become example of a cultural shift that’s all-pervasive. Alex Preston, a frequent panelist on the show, commented in The Guardian last week that Richard Klein, controller of BBC4,

…did his best to paint a rosy picture of The Review Show’s future on the new channel. Several times, though, he cited Twitter as the motivation for the move. In a world of instant opinion, he suggested, where everyone’s a critic, you don’t need a bunch of academics sitting around a table stroking their beards. John Carey isn’t even on Twitter (or that was the gist) … This argument is as flawed as it is pervasive at the BBC, where social media is viewed with a mixture of fear and lust. In an age of clamouring online hordes, informed voices are needed more than ever. We now lag even further behind our continental peers in terms of both the amount of arts programming on our televisions and the proportion of budgets devoted to it.

Opera stars pulling sickies (or just pulling out)

Last week Antonio Pappano, the music director at Covent Garden, launched an extraordinary attack on the current crop of opera stars who play at his house, or rather frequently don’t, despite their apparent contractual duties. As he said when announcing the Opera House’s new season last week,

There’s something in this generation of singers that they are weaker in body or don’t care.. It’s very frustrating for me personally. I have to conduct these guys. Physically the organisms are not as strong. For Domingo to cancel he would have to be on his death bed. It’s just a different generation.”

Contracts don’t mean what they used to either: previously,”a contract is a contract. The attitude is not the same [now]…. A lot of people are getting sicker and sicker. It’s a problem. There’s so much travelling involved with singer. People are overbooked, overcommitted, there are too many new things, the stress on them and the amount of PR… you can’t imagine how much non-musical activities singers have to do today.

You can sense his frustration – yet at the same time, audiences are even more frustrated by these frequent changes after they’ve booked. And though bookings are running high at the Opera House – with Kasper Holten, director of opera at Covent Garden, commenting, “Almost everything sells out” – it could be commercial suicide to have pointed this out.

As Erica Jeal, deputy editor of Opera magazine, pointed out in turn,

I can see why Pappano would be so frustrated. Cancellations have been a big problem at the Royal Opera House. Everyone at his level is frustrated, although it’s unusual to express it publicly, especially at a press conference.

While West End musical theatre stars don’t typically renege on contracts that they’ve already committed to, I wonder if anyone’s keeping track of just how frequently understudies routinely cover for them, too. I’ve previously pointed out on this blog about the apparently frequent absences of stars Heather Headley from The Bodyguard and Hannah Waddingham from the recent Kiss Me, Kate. Perhaps someone in authority needs to speak out on behalf of West End customers, just as Pappano has done for the opera house.

Operatic press freedoms

From opera stars failing to turn up to an opera company that failed to let photographers turn up instead: last week it was reported that Cologne Opera had the right to ban press photographers from the opening of its controversial Samson et Dalila in 2009, and offer its own images instead to the press. 

The production reportedly featured blood, nudity, gang rape, corsets and torture; and the German tabloid Bild and their publishers Axel Springer brought an action against the opera house protesting their inability to make a feast out of it.

According to one report,

They complained that the photos would have been in the public interest, and so the ban amounted to censorship. In response to the opera house’s contention that Bild had a reputation for sexist images, Axel Springer said that they shouldn’t have made assumptions.

Cologne representatives pointed out that the house was obliged (contractually, in some cases) to protect the privacy of the performers. Many were naked on stage.

Münster judges ruled that the opera house was indeed obliged to provide information to the press, but could decide how and what to present. They also said the interruption caused by photo-taking was not in the interests of either performers or audience.

If only we had a Cologne court on hand to rule when Bianca Jagger thought it was okay to take flash photography during a Philip Glass opera at the Barbican last year….

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