Mark Shenton: Is stunt casting like Tanya Burr really the way of the future?
In a feature for WhatsOnStage this week, Matt Trueman welcomed the imminent appearance of YouTube blogger Tanya Burr in a revival of Judy Upton’s Confidence at Southwark Playhouse.
He admitted: “She’s far better known for her beauty tips than her acting chops. The vlog she started in her Norwich bedroom as a teenager nine years ago has rocketed her to social media stardom: 3.7 million YouTube subscribers, 3.2 million Instagram followers and the same again on Twitter. If every one of her YouTube subscribers bought a ticket to Confidence, she’d have the Southwark Playhouse’s studio space sold out for the next 87 years.”
Apart from the obvious box office boon, he also suggested: ”This isn’t commercially minded cynicism, but an attempt at making theatre accessible,” to draw in new audiences, who are “more likely to be looking at Snapchat than WhatsOnStage”.
In this analysis, it’s a genuine attempt to reach new audiences, or, as the headline to the piece says, it “holds the key to theatre’s future.”
But that will only be the case if the casting works. We don’t yet know if Burr can act, though I assume that Boundless Theatre’s artistic director Rob Drummer has already checked her credentials in that department, so she doesn’t embarrass herself, the company or us.
But there’s a bigger issue at play: the standing and status of the acting profession more generally. If anyone with a big Instagram and Twitter following can be thrown into the lead of a play, what’s the point of real actors learning and honing their craft?
Or, as Charlotte Wakefield tweeted in response to Trueman’s blog:
Might just quite whilst I’m ahead…. https://t.co/PHxDFyM8Ah
— Charlotte Wakefield (@Wake_X) February 13, 2018
A similar controversy erupted when cricketer Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff was cast in his stage debut in the touring musical Fat Friends – the Musical. There’s a telling line in the York Press’ review of the show about his performance: “Like many “non-actors”, Flintoff favours hands in pockets as his safety-first position, but by comparison with Ian Botham and Frank Bruno in bygone Bradford pantos, he is definitely in with a sporting chance of further stage engagements.”
The Huddersfield Daily Examiner was more measured in its enthusiasm: after praising other cast members, it said:
We need to talk about Freddie. Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff captured nice-but-dim Kevin well and won plenty of laughs – but sadly, his vocals just weren’t up to the task. I mean, anyone’s going to be challenged dueting with Jodie Prenger, but her talent only made his average abilities more obvious. As an actor, the cricketing star captured the Leeds accent well (I challenge you to find a more Yorkshire adjective than chuffin’) but at times he was a touch wooden in his delivery. The Only Fool Is Me was a great soft-rock interlude in Act 2, but sadly the orchestra drowned him out.
Of course, ever since Equity’s closed shop on the profession was loosened so that now anyone who wants to call themselves an actor can do so without needing to acquire an Equity card, the theatre has been fair game for anyone who wants to try it.
But it does occur to me the same could apply to theatre criticism, too: why not have Jeffrey Archer writing theatre reviews, since he has already written two West End plays, and James Corden reviewing shows on Broadway? With Corden’s huge social media reach (he has 10.2 million Twitter followers), he would be read widely and it would be a great way to bring new audiences to the theatre. Maybe Matt and I will have to watch our backs.