Behind the scenes in 2014
Critics inevitably look at what’s happening onstage in our end-of-year round-ups, and I’ve already provided my 10 best London musicals of the year and a critical round-up of the West End year which appears in the bumper Christmas issue of the paper.
But The Stage is also about what happens offstage – the people, the buildings and the events. These are the happenings behind the scenes that shook the world of theatre in 2014:
Apollo Theatre partial ceiling collapse
The spectre of the partial ceiling collapse at the Apollo Theatre in December 2013 loomed over the West End in 2014, especially as the investigation into what actually happened took most of the year to resolve. The theatre itself happily returned to use in March – handsomely refurbished – with a temporary ceiling in place. Last week, Nimax, which owns the Apollo, was cleared of negligence when it was announced the incident happened “because of the age of the structure”.
That’s cold comfort. It could, in other words, happen again, at any time, to any of the historic buildings in the West End. ABTT has drawn up a series of recommendations to suggest theatres “undertake an initial survey of the ceiling and its surrounding area… to examine and record the existing conditions of both the structural elements and the plaster elements of suspended ceilings.”
I’d have hoped that in the immediate aftermath of the events at the Apollo this had been done at every West End theatre already. Meanwhile, a year on from those events, we still have zero public accountability for the so-called restoration charges that every theatre in the West End collects but doesn’t tell us (or hardly even shows us) where it goes.
Changing artistic regimes
The theatre world is regularly rejuvenated when theatres change the men and women at the top, and the next year will see several key changes. Rufus Norris, announced in 2013 to succeed Nick Hytner at the National, takes over there in April. He will announce his first season on January 21.
He is joined by a new chief executive, Tessa Ross, who was announced in March 2014 to replace Nick Starr. Ross, who was Channel 4’s controller of film and drama, will no doubt be very useful in continuing to grow the NT Live’s forays into cinema and digital distribution, which has been one of the National’s biggest successes of the last decade. Lisa Burger, formerly the chief operating officer, was appointed the NT’s new executive director.
At the Globe – which also has an increasingly global reach thanks to its own Globe Player and Globe on Screen projects – Dominic Dromgoole enters his own final lap, programming his last summer season before stepping down on April 23, 2016. The announcement of his successor is the most keenly awaited of the new year.
At Leicester, the year ended with Paul Kerryson stepping down after 23 years in charge, first of the Haymarket then of Curve (that he oversaw the building of). Paul’s record there combined canny commercial choices – like Hairspray, which he revived this year and will launch a UK tour of out of Leicester in the New Year – and far riskier ventures like the run of Sondheims he did at the Haymarket and The Light in the Piazza that he gave the UK premiere of at Leicester. In recognition of his work, Kerryson won The Stage award for contribution to British theatre at the 2014 UK Theatre Awards. He will be missed, but his successor Nikolai Foster is also a smart director and I look forward to Curve going from strength to strength.
At Richmond’s Orange Tree, Paul Miller took over from long-serving founder director Sam Walters (who ran it for 42 years), only to discover on his very first day in the job that ACE had cut its entire grant. But Paul has already proved that the way to come back from that blow is to simply deliver on his artistic programme, and he has already been doing so with both adventurous new plays and classics.
Critics and theatrical journalism
After the Independent on Sunday shelved most of its original critical coverage entirely in September 2013, this year it was the turn of the Sunday Telegraph to give up on having a regular theatre critic, with the departure of Tim Walker. Tim and I have had our public differences, partially fuelled by and regularly aired in this column, but the loss of any tree in the critical forest is a cause for regret: will there be anyone left to hear us?
Metro, the daily free paper, also abandoned its regular daily arts reviews (though it occasionally run a high profile overnight review), and did away with its excellent theatre critic Claire Allfree.
The other big change in the critical landscape across the year was the sudden retirement of Charles Spencer, aged just 59, from the Daily Telegraph. He was relentlessly honest to the last, signing off with a valedictory piece where he confessed, “I no longer enjoy writing knocking copy. Why make other people feel miserable? But a critic who is reluctant to put the boot in when it’s required is doing his readers a disservice.” Charlie did his readers a great service, but it has left me miserable now that he’s gone.
It also emerged in January that Terri Paddock, editorial director (and co-founder) of Whatsonstage, had been dismissed in mid-December by the company’s new American owners. She subsequently took them to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal, the result of which is yet to be announced. Terri’s dedication to Whatsonstage for more than 16 years put the site (and especially its publicly-voted awards) on the map and won’t be forgotten.
Meanwhile, here at The Stage, Alistair Smith took over as editor from Brian Attwood, who left after 20 years at the helm, and Paddy Smith (no relation to Alistair) took over as online editor.
It’s not quite finished yet, but the National’s £70 million NT Future refit has already delivered the new Dorfman Theatre (refashioned out of the Cottesloe) and a brand-new bookshop and ground floor cafe. I’m sorry that the old Olivier buffet, in-between the Stalls and the Circle, no longer does hot food – it was always a welcome hidden refuge from the crowds on the theatre’s ground floor – but the National had been looking tired, and the improvements are otherwise welcome.
At Chichester Festival Theatre, the improvements made as part of their own £22 million rebuilding project have been utterly seamless. It still feels uniquely ‘Chichester’, even though there have been lots of material changes. Those are my favourite sorts of rebuilds – where the things that made the theatre what it was are preserved, yet subtly improved upon.
We’ve lost many treasured theatre people this year, too numerous to mention here, but I’m most going to miss Broadway’s Elaine Stritch and Rik Mayall. I’d interviewed both in my time, and they were both very strange, even bewildering occasions. I remembered my interview with Mayall here, but my time with Stritch was even more terrifying. We met at the Savoy Hotel – where she once was a long-term resident – and the hotel allowed us to use a restaurant that was shut to conduct the interview in. In the middle of the interview, she decided she wanted a Diet Coke. But there were obviously no waiters around. She got more and more agitated — then turned to me and said she knew what she had to do. She started shouting: “Fire! Fire!” And a waiter suddenly appeared.
Another Broadway legend who will be missed is Marian Seldes, who I saw in countless plays over the years. She was famous for never missing a performance – she did every single one of the 1,809 performance run of Broadway’s Deathtrap. When Michael Riedel quizzed her about this track record on his TheaterTalk chat show, she replied, “Well, I never missed high school either. It’s in my nature. It has nothing to do with acting. It’s what I want to do, what I’m supposed to do.”
In 2001, I saw Seldes appear in 45 Seconds from Broadway, a short-lived Neil Simon comedy set in the Edison Cafe, the diner located in the foyer of the Edison Hotel. And last weekend, the Polish Tea Room (as it was also known) itself shut its doors. I reported on the threat to it here, and I had one last cheesburger deluxe, preceded by a Gazpacho, on Sunday before it closed.
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