The joys of SE1

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Last night I was at the opening of The Amen Corner at the National, a production that not only brings James Baldwin's historic play back to London for the first time since the Tricycle produced it at the turn of the Millennium but also brings Marianne Jean-Baptiste (who was Oscar-nominated for Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) back to England from Hollywood where she has lately made her home for the first time in a decade.

The reason she disappeared, seemingly without a trace, was Without a Trace, the inevitable long-running US TV series that has swallowed up many a British actor. But as she told the Daily Telegraph's Jasper Rees, the main reason she stayed on even after that show ended in 2009 was, as he reports,

"It's the weather, man. I'm telling you." She emits a cackle that is purest Peckham. "Seriously. I actually like getting up to blue skies. I did 24 episodes a year for seven years. Who'd sign anything for seven years? I don't think I would have. Seven years! You sign for three. But it goes so quickly. And it's work."

But even if the weather in London does, of course, get you down, there's nowhere I'd rather be right now than in SE1. Which is handy, as I live there. So although I don't wake up routinely to blue skies, I don't have far to go a lot of the time to do my job. Tonight I'll be another stone's throw away from home to see the opening of Sweet Bird of Youth at the Old Vic, also in SE1, and tomorrow afternoon, just further along the Cut to catch the Belarus Free Theatre production of Trash Cuisine at the Young Vic.

Last Sunday, Susannah Clapp's review column in The Observer was comprised entirely of shows seen in SE1: as well as Trash Cuisine, she also covered the National's Strange Interlude and the Globe's A Midsummer Night's Dream. As she noted in her opening paragraph,

The postcodes at the top of this column tell a theatrical story. The South Bank is the new West End. Over the past 10 years this strip has become essential for London theatregoers. Partly because the imaginative powerhouse of Battersea Arts Centre has blown invention northwards, helping to enable excitement at Southwark and the entrepreneurial Menier. Partly because of three big buildings: the capacious National, the daring Globe, the subversive Young Vic. All three of these are flying this week.

Southwark Playhouse may not have flown quite so high with its grand reopening production in its new home on Newington Causeway of Tanzi Libre; originally due to run to the end of next week, it was cancelled after its lead actress Olivia Onyehara suffered an injury during the show and cannot continue with the run. I'm sorry to hear of anyone getting hurt, but at least audiences will be spared having to endure this misfiring show.

Still, once again I didn't have to go far to see it, at least – the new Southwark Playhouse is about four minutes walk from my front door. And it does feel like the Susannah Clapp is right; here's where all the action is. The now reprieved Union, whose owner Network Rail has withdrawn its application to change the site into offices, has another gem of a rediscovery with the first London production of John Barry and Don Black's musical Billy since its original staging at Drury Lane in 1974.

As I wrote in my review for The Stage, this production

is proof positive of why the venue is so essential... It also gives its performers – veterans and newcomers alike – a brilliant showcase for their talents, especially as staged here with the kind of integrity and showmanship by Michael Strassen that gives both this show’s loving book (by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais) and lovely score equal dramatic weight and impact.

I also reviewed another show in SE1 last Friday – the London transfer of Brooklyn-based the TEAM's Edinburgh hit Mission Drift from Edinburgh, where it was first seen in 2011, to the National's new Shed. I may not have exactly welcomed this new, temporary venue when it first opened to replace the Cottesloe, mainly thanks to the fact that I found it so deeply uncomfortable, but I now see that it serves a very useful purpose: as I wrote in my review for The Stage,

The National’s temporary Shed space has four chimneys protruding from its roof, and they seem to be sending up smoke signals that something decisively different is happening here. After Rob Drummond’s extraordinary, death-defying Bullet Catch, which transferred from Glasgow’s Arches and Edinburgh’s Traverse, it is now hosting this 2011 Edinburgh hit from Brooklyn-based company The Team.

Mission Drift is a highly original and distinctive piece that provides a bracing theatrical snapshot of the current crisis engulfing American capitalism, as epitomised by the fate and state of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, too, the Unicorn in nearby Tooley Street, SE1 is also sending up a different kind of smoke signal: that a children's theatre doesn't just have to be for kids. Yesterday they announced their autumn season, which includes two productions of Shakespeare re-imagined for young audiences, Travelling Light and Bristol's Tobacco Factory Olivier nominated production of Cinderella: A Fairytale returning to London for a Christmas season, and the premiere of Sushayla El Bushra's Cuckoo, a new Unicorn play about young people for an adult audience in January.