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Mark Shenton’s week: The joy of Edinburgh in the off-season

Edinburgh. Credit: Imageset/Shutterstock Edinburgh. Credit: Imageset/Shutterstock
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I began last week in Edinburgh and ended it in Barbados, and in between had four days in London during which I met and interviewed Sheridan Smith (Funny Girl) and Joe McElderry (about to play the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, launching a new tour later this month in Peterborough), reviewed the first two London musical openings of the year, Guys and Dolls and Grey Gardens and caught up, belatedly, with the current West End revival of The Homecoming.

I also went to a couple of office events: a post-Christmas dinner outing with colleagues I share an office with in Southwark, and a lunch with The Stage to welcome Natasha Tripney, joint lead critic with me, to the full-time staff as reviews editor. It is part of The Stage’s admirable commitment to reviewing theatre across the length and breadth of Britain, even as other national outlets seriously reduce their coverage.

On top of this, I attended the opening of an exhibition of Mark Manley’s extraordinary three minute doodles, tiny pen portraits executed on Post-it notes, that have already become a prized West End institution. He’s drawn nearly 300 subjects now (including me). He’s exhibiting them now at the Theatre Cafe on Shaftesbury Avenue to the end of January before publishing a book of them.

The Theatre Cafe is a really welcome addition to the West End. Located in a prime slot on Shaftesbury Avenue, diagonally opposite the Queen’s Theatre, it is run by a London ticket agency and so has iPads on every table to allow customers instant access to theatre tickets. But more than that, it is a little bit of theatre community building in the heart of the West End, where fans as well as actors can meet over coffee and delicious muffins and sandwiches. Last year the Curtain Up Show – the weekly London theatre show hosted by Tim McArthur and Nathan Matthews – did a live broadcast from the Theatre Cafe ahead of the Olivier Awards.

Cutting out the middle men (and women)

The theatre industry is full of subsidiary service industries, meant to serve and service the core art while taking the strain off its creators and participants. These include advertising, marketing and press functions. I’ve worked in one of these myself: my first job after leaving university in the mid-80s was at the West End advertising agency Dewynters (where I was head of publications, looking after the theatre programmes and souvenir brochures they published in London and New York). It’s where I first met personalities like Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. In the years since, of course, I have been on the other side of the fence – reviewing their work and interviewing them both regularly.

Conducting interviews is a major part of what I do – and one of the hardest bits (besides the headache of transcribing the tapes) is actually securing the interviews in the first place. There’s an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing as you need to ascertain a subject’s willingness to be interviewed, the conflicting claims on their attention and their availabilities (you always want to interview them when they’re in the midst of more important matters, like actually rehearsing the show you want to talk to them about). The bigger the star, the more people want them, too, and professional publicists – either in-house at places like the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company, or freelance independent agencies for most West End shows – are employed to be the go-between.

Some stars also have personal managers (especially if they’re American), agents or personal publicists that the show’s publicist will additionally have to negotiate with on your behalf. I have twice in recent months found myself having to bypass those people. In one case, the star concerned came to me: he’d suggested that I might be willing to interview him to the show’s publicist, but they had not passed it on to me (even though they told him that they had). So he approached me directly on Twitter, and asked if I was interested. Of course I was, and jumped at the chance.

On the other occasion, I had been told that the star and her agent were happy to do the interview; but again, matters stalled around the personal publicist arranging a time. Finally, we missed the deadline. I tweeted the star directly, and she expressed her regrets and offered to arrange it directly with me instead.

The joy of Edinburgh (outside the festivals)

I don’t mind admitting that I’m personally now intimidated by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: it is just so vast now that I don’t feel I can get a handle on it, and the fear of missing out takes hold so strongly that I feel it is better to miss it entirely… and wait for the good things to come to London, as they invariably will.

But I also adore the city of Edinburgh, and having gone to the festivals regularly since 1984, I always vowed to myself that I would try to visit outside of the festival. Now I’ve finally done it for a five-day trip spanning Hogmanay and the New Year celebrations, and what a pleasure it was. It’s a city of great museums, beautiful buildings and grand vistas, with the countryside tantalisingly within reach in the outlines of Salisbury Crags that lead up towards Arthur’s Seat.

I also found time to go to the theatre a bit – including the current touring production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that was playing at Edinburgh Playhouse, one of the largest theatres in the country, where Jason Donovan was reprising his West End turn as Tick, one of the three drag queens who take to the road to tour their drag show to the Australian outback. Naturally, he got billing on the theatre’s frontage; but I was shocked that his direct co-stars Simon Green (playing Bernadette) and Adam Bailey (Felicia) were not similarly billed. Instead, in Edinburgh, two local stars imported to play the supporting roles of Bob and Cynthia – Gavin Mitchell and Karen Dunbar respectively – were billed.

It’s fine, sort of, to parachute local stars into a show if it will help the box office; though not at the expense of the people who actually make the show tick beyond the actor playing Tick.

I also caught the outstanding Australian new circus troupe Circa reprising their 2014 Edinburgh Fringe hit Beyond at the Spiegeltent in St Andrew’s Square, among a Christmas fair that also included an ice skating rink that circled the statue in the middle of the square. Now I’m dying to see Circa’s next show, The Return, that will be seen at the Barbican as part of this year’s London International Festival of Mime from January 27 to 31.

Barbados and beyond

And now I’ve switched off my phone for all of this week, and flown to Barbados. No, I’m not hanging out with Andrew Lloyd Webber or Simon Cowell, both of whom have homes there, but staying at a resort in the very tourist-friendly St Lawrence Gap – the first place I stayed on the island when I first visited it about 10 years ago. Prior to this trip, I have returned three more times. It’s a favourite holiday destination now, thanks partly to the glorious sunshine and warm and crystal blue Caribbean sea, but also thanks to the absence of theatrical distraction. I just can’t go to the theatre here. Next week I’ll be in New York again, so normal service of daily columns will be restored from there (though I’ll be here as usual this Thursday with my picks of the week in London and beyond).

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