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Mark Shenton’s week: Spare a thought for the understudy when the show’s not a hit

Anne-Marie Duff in Common. Photo: Johan Persson Anne-Marie Duff in Common. Photo: Johan Persson
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In the space of just seven days last week, I managed to be in the following places: I woke up in Provincetown on Cape Cod on the Saturday morning, then took a bumpy ferry to Boston on which I lost my breakfast, flew overnight to London to land on Sunday and went to a 60th birthday party in Hook in Hampshire that day.

I then went to Lichfield on Monday and Newbury on Tuesday to review The Dreaming and A Little Night Music. I was in London on Wednesday and Thursday (seeing two first nights and two catch-up matinees on those days), and then flew back to New York on Friday. Who says theatre critics shouldn’t get out more?

The trouble with this kind of schedule is that you are often left chasing your tail. While I was away in the Cape, I missed quite a few openings that I’ll be spending the next month or so trying to catch up on, all the while seeing new shows.

One of the shows I caught up with last week was DC Moore’s Common at the National. It would be fair to say that this opened to some of the most catastrophically bad notices I’ve ever read, so it might have been better to draw a discreet, Salome-like veil over it (as I have with that show, which I also missed the opening of at the National).

But it also has one of my favourite actors in it, Cush Jumbo. These days, Jumbo spends more time across the Atlantic, where she has become the break-out star of the final series of The Good Wife and its spin-off The Good Fight. So, it’s just thrilling that she’s chosen to spend her summer off back home doing a play at the National.

I did, however, fear that I might not last the course. So instead of claiming a press ticket, I actually bought a ticket to see it – if you do, you buy the right to leave if you want to, whereas if you are a guest of the management that is – quite understandably – frowned upon. Though the play is an epic muddle and I wouldn’t exactly recommend it, I didn’t leave at the interval, either.

All credit to the cast to keeping me there. However it has been received, they still have to go out there and do it night after night. And last Wednesday afternoon, Anne-Marie Duff was off and her understudy Amy Downham had to step in in an extra bit of theatrical heroism.

It’s one thing to take over a role in a hit show to make your mark; but another entirely to have to do so in a faltering one in front of a sparse audience (the side block stalls and Olivier circle were maybe 10% full, though the centre stalls was full enough, at least before the interval). Downham rose to the occasion and owned the stage like she was in a hit.

To see or not to see, that is the question…

I’ve already written about the surfeit of Hamlets (not to mention Lears, Tempests and Julius Caesars) around at the moment, with the announcement of Tom Hiddleston soon to give his at RADA’s Vanbrugh Theatre. As I concluded, though: “Only theatre critics tend to complain, since most people don’t get to see them all.”

It turns out that Hiddleston is one that may evade theatre critics: the customary courtesy of press tickets is not going to be extended to us, and we’re being invited to apply for tickets via the public ballot instead. I can understand the logic: it’s hardly a show that needs reviews, since it is going to be completely sold out, and it is a charity fundraiser for RADA so they need to get as much money though the box office as they can.

But two things occur to me: one is that the production is denying itself a formal critical appraisal that will validate it for the actors concerned, and provide an independent public record of it taking place; the other is that, should any critic acquire tickets on the public ballot for the very first performance, that would become fair game to review. Only when theatres issue invitations themselves can they control when critics see their work.

Britain’s most perfect theatre and the West End’s most uncomfortable

Visiting Newbury’s Watermill Theatre again last week for A Little Night Music, it occurred to me – not for the first time – that this may just be Britain’s most perfect theatre in a found space. There is actually a giant watermill at the back of the auditorium through which water is gushing. And leaving the theatre car park afterwards, we actually had to wait for a family of ducks to get out of the way.

But it is not just the unrivalled physical conditions of the place, which last provided the absolutely perfect home for Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, with one play being performed inside the house while the second one was being played simultaneously in the garden outside. It’s also the sense of theatrical community the place establishes so effortlessly. The actors live on the premises; there is also one of the best theatre restaurants I know.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: for a long time I’ve railed against the extreme discomfort of Trafalgar Studios, in both its main house and studio; my husband typically refuses point blank to see shows in either space. Newly under the ownership of the Trafalgar Entertainment Group – which Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire have set up after their departure from the helm of ATG – it is surely time for them to address this.

It’s not just me who is saying this: in his review of Apologia that opened there last Thursday for the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts writes, “Trafalgar Studios must surely be the most hideously uncomfortable theatre in London.”

Before it moved to its new premises, the Bush was famously London’s most uncomfortable fringe theatre, and it is there that Apologia first premiered in 2009. Seeing it again in the Trafalgar Studios maintains that level of discomfort.

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