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Mark Shenton: Revivals can ruin or reinvigorate a work of art

Clare Burt and Claire Machin in Flowers for Mrs Harris/Bryony Hannah and Heida Reed in Foxfinder. Photos: Johan Persson/Pamela Raith Clare Burt and Claire Machin in Flowers for Mrs Harris/Bryony Hannah and Heida Reed in Foxfinder. Photos: Johan Persson/Pamela Raith
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The essence of theatre is its liveness – that it is a mutable art form, and that plays or musicals will change from performance to performance, production to production. You don’t want it preserved in aspic.

There are parts of the West End and Broadway that feel a bit like a museum, with replacement casts grinding through the motions of those who preceded them – actors are put in by associate directors, choreographers and musical directors going ‘by the book’ of what’s been done before.

On Broadway, one British actor I know, who joined the company of an existing show during its run there, told me she didn’t even rehearse with the rest of the company once – and only first met the leading man she was sharing a scene with the moment she made her entrance on stage.

That’s a theatre drained not just of actorly rapport, but even basic civility. It’s a commercial machine, designed to be driven from curtain up to curtain down with very little intervening humanity.

By contrast, not so long ago I revisited The Mousetrap, the West End’s longest-running show, and found that it is constantly being refreshed, not just by a new cast every six months, but also by a resident director, the veteran actor Hugh Ross who keeps a keen eye on it.

Other shows gain from being given a fresh look – or may alternately be diminished. Last week, Flowers for Mrs Harris, a new British musical I very much admired on its first outing in Sheffield two years ago, was revived in a slightly revised production at Chichester Festival Theatre, with many of the same superb cast – magnificently led by Clare Burt and fellow returnees Louis Maskell, Mark Meadows, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Nicola Sloane.

In a programme interview, book author Rachel Wagstaff says: “We were really proud of what we made for Sheffield but relished the opportunity to keep tightening and refining, as we’ve always done. We’ve reordered some events in the first act and trimmed away some of the excess material that we found we simply don’t need… We’ve worked mostly on tightening up the first act, which is now around 10 minutes shorter than it was, and I don’t think there’s anything we really miss.”

I originally reviewed it for The Stage in Sheffield, and re-reviewing it in Chichester, Julia Rank quotes my comment on the show’s “glowing warmth”. She says: “This revised staging at Evans’ new home theatre reinforces its poignant charms.”

As it happens, earlier this week I saw it again myself and I was emotionally overcome by the heightened impact of the show. What seemed intentionally low key before now grows and glows by an accumulation of feeling into something that left me sobbing with delight.

On the other hand, it is very striking to compare the extraordinary reviews that Dawn King’s Foxfinder received on its original premiere at the Finborough Theatre in 2011 with the largely negative ones it has now received on its return, in a different physical production and with a different cast and director, to the West End’s Ambassadors last week.

Foxfinder review at Ambassadors Theatre, London – ‘flat production of a fabulous play’

Reviewing its December 2011 opening at the Finborough, the Guardian’s Michael Billington said: “In a wan year for new writing, Dawn King’s play shines out like a beacon. Winner of the Papatango playwriting competition, it may display the influence of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and have echoes of Kafka, but it remains an arresting and individual work that haunts the mind long after you’ve seen it,” and he concluded, “along with Mike Bartlett’s 13 – [it] is the most compelling new work I have seen this year.”

This time, though, Miriam Gillinson, also reviewing for The Guardian, says the new production “feels a little lost and overexposed in its expansive and shiny new home”. There’s another even bigger problem: “It is the headline-grabbing casting that has most neutralised King’s play. The TV actors packed into this tight four-hander don’t quite fit.”

Not all shows, in other words, benefit from a fresh look. But theatre is like that – change some of its moving parts at your peril. What a disappointment, though, for the playwright.

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