Manchester steals Edinburgh’s thunder, hidden booking fees and understudies making headlines
A week tomorrow Jonathan Mills will launch his penultimate programme at the helm of the Edinburgh International Festival at an event being held at Whitehall's Scotland Office.
But on the theatre front, at least, it's unlikely that he's going to match the breadth and ambition of this year's Manchester International Festival, helmed by Alex Poots, that was announced last week. (When it comes to looking for a successor for Mills, who leaves after next year's Edinburgh festival, Poots would be a good place to start.)
While last year's Edinburgh International theatre programme, for instance, consisted solely of imports from Warsaw, Germany, France, Japan, Ireland, Romania, Russia, Spain and a couple of homegrown companies with work seen elsewhere, Manchester International Festival isn't a festival of imports but of commissions and international collaborations.
It's a startling programme, at least on paper, with appearances by Kenneth Branagh (in Macbeth, co-directed by himself and Rob Ashford in a deconsecrated church, and already sold out, despite ticket prices the reach a whopping £65), Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Bayshnikov (in The Old Woman, directed by Robert Wilson; I just hope Wilson's friend Bianca Jagger doesn't plan on showing up to take photographs), and Maxine Peake (in a stage version of Shelley's poem The Masque of an Anarchist, directed by Sarah Frankcom).
There's also a new play The Machine by Matt Charman, directed by the Donmar's Josie Rourke, and a new centenary production of Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring without actors or dancers, but instead creating "choreography from falling bone powder" accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra.
Booking fees that are (still) being hidden
In a recent feature in The Stage, I called the West End to account for its compulsory levying of small but significant additional restoration charge which it routinely collects (but doesn't have to account for actually spending) on the price of each ticket. Sometimes, of course, you can see where the money is going, but too often you're paying now for a future possibility of fresh comfort and facilities that may never materialise.
But at least the restoration charge is clear and unambiguous in terms of its amount and intention, if not its eventually delivery of the promise it contains. Last week, however, the Advertising Standards Authority censured ATG, the AKA Group, the Old Vic and Charing Cross Theatres for quoting misleading ticket prices on their websites.
The ASA were exercised over the fact that the prices shown at each stage of the booking process aren't necessarily the check-out price, as suddenly additional booking and/or service charges are applied there. Charing Cross Theatre rather feebly hid behind the excuse that it didn't include the commission fee in the website price as the website "was also a reference point for those booking in person at the box office, where no commission was payable."
Of course, it's easy enough to separate them out and show it clearly, as the Old Vic – another offender – have now done: on their website, it is stated at the seat selection stage, "All bookings include a one off transaction fee: Book online - £1.50 (applied at checkout) / Book by phone - £2.50 / Book in person - no transaction fee."
When I checked it yesterday, the Charing Cross Theatre website, by contrast, still waits till after you have already added your ticket purchase to a basket to inform you of the additional £2 per ticket "commission" charge. The word from the ASA has obviously not got through yet.
The show must go on (despite the absence of its leading man – or lady)
Last Tuesday the producers of Top Hat held a press night for their new leading couple Gavin Lee and Kristen Beth Williams, taking over from Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen respectively. Only Gavin wasn't able to go on.
As The Stage's Paul Vale reported in his review:
In something akin to a moment from a classic Hollywood movie, Gavin Lee - the new leading man of Top Hat - is suffering with a chest infection and unable to appear. While we all wish him a speedy recovery it falls to regular ensemble member and understudy Alan Burkitt to take up the all-singing, all-dancing role of Jerry Travers.
I wasn't able to be at the press night myself as it clashed with the Donmar's opening of Trelawny of the Wells, so had planned to go last Friday – but Lee wasn't back yet, so I was able to reschedule. I used the free night instead to re-visit Kiss Me, Kate which I'd not seen since its Chichester opening night, but which was about to close last Saturday so it was my (almost) last chance to see again.
I was looking forward to seeing Hannah Waddingham reprise her turn in the title role, but that wasn't to be either; when I arrived at the theatre, there were notices in the foyer that the role would be played instead by Carolyn Maitland, who acquitted herself admirably (just as Lee's understudy had evidently done at Top Hat). But then Maitland, it seems, has had a lot of practice: after I tweeted about Waddingham's absence, I got a cry from various parties that they, too, had missed her when they had been to see the show in both Chichester and London.