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Mark Shenton’s week: Rays of hope for the new British musical?

Dan Buckley, Laura Baldwin and Liam Forde in Eugenius at the Other Palace, London. Photo: Pamela Raith Dan Buckley, Laura Baldwin and Liam Forde in Eugenius at the Other Palace, London. Photo: Pamela Raith
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“You already know you’re going to love it!”, declare the ads for Mamma Mia!. Now I’ve noticed that Eugenius!, a new musical at the Other Palace, has an even more hopeful exclamation on its publicity: “You already need to see it again!”

Mamma Mia!, which next year marks its 20th anniversary since premiering in the West End, returned to Australia last week for a third run. In a perceptive review for the Guardian, Cassie Tongue put the finger on its appeal: the show, she noted, is a “conduit for memory, and an excuse for hundreds of audience members to forget their self-consciousness and raise their voices in song at the end”.

She adds:

“This is service theatre; it doesn’t let the plot get in the way of you remembering lost loves and dreamy ex-lovers, and laughing with friends late at night. Mamma Mia! is like listening to your old records or your parents’ music in the car. It’s Eurovision parties and confetti and every wedding reception dancefloor. It’s not a great musical. But it’s a way to access the songs that shaped our music industry and gave us a vocabulary for nights out and locked eyes and sorrow. It’s whatever we bring to it. Bring your pop-drenched memories and thank-yous-for-the-music. Leave your cynicism at home.”

And leaving any cynicism at home, I’d like to note, too, that the Other Palace celebrated the first anniversary of its rebranding last week as a new home for new musicals. Most of the actual development work has been happening in the basement studio, while the main house tries to build an audience with a more populist strand – its biggest success to date was the sell-out success of the British professional premiere of Andrew Lippa’s Broadway show Big Fish, thanks to the celebrity casting of Kelsey Grammer.

But there’s definitely progress afoot both here and elsewhere on the new musicals front, as the current West End transfer of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie from Sheffield Crucible demonstrates, while another Sheffield-originated musical, Flowers for Mrs Harris, will also be revived by its original director Daniel Evans and with its original star Clare Burt as part of this summer’s Chichester season, from September 8. More imminently, both Salisbury Playhouse and Colchester’s Mercury will premiere new musicals this spring, respectively Russell Hepplewhite and Gareth Machin’s Moonfleet, from April 19, and Gus Gowland’s Pieces of String, from April 20.

And about to take place at Theatre Royal Stratford East is this year’s BEAM 2018 festival, running March 1-2, in which new work by some 58 British writers will be showcased under the auspices of Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network.

The musicals of the future may very well start here.

Is it curtains for PRs as well as arts journalists?

Given that theatre requires you to be in the room when it happens (as Hamilton puts it so eloquently), it is ironic how so much of the conversation around it takes place online.

But then, another of the paradoxes of the theatre is that, however much we want it to reach as wide an audience as possible, it is always necessarily finite – dictated by the capacity of the rooms it is playing in. 

Critics and commentators can rush to applaud the latest play in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs (80-90 seats) or the Donmar Warehouse (251), but, barring a cinema broadcast on NT Live or a West End transfer, the audience is always going to be necessarily limited.

Yet the chatter that goes on around it can be disproportionately loud. I sometimes feel like I’m living in an echo-chamber in which everyone I know is always talking about the theatre. Obviously, my own Twitter timeline is not necessarily representative, as I inevitably follow – and am followed by – people who are interested in the theatre. I’m also an avid consumer of arts journalism, both online and in print, wherever it appears.

As a provider of it, too, my email inbox delivers me some of that news. Last week, for instance,  both the Royal Court and Chichester Festival Theatre announced their new seasons, via formal press releases that arrived by email.

But there’s now increasingly a ‘Wild West’ in which announcements do not come to light via press releases, or even via the standard, widely adopted practice of delivering them as an exclusive first to the Daily Mail’s Baz Bamigboye, who “breaks” the news via teasers on his Twitter feed on a Thursday night, then in print and online the next morning.

As Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish recently tweeted:

Last week, though, there was no formal press announcement of the cast being lined up for English National Opera’s forthcoming production of Chess until several days after it had been reported on Twitter, including on a news account for the show’s co-composer Benny Andersson:

I’ve long predicted the redundancy of arts journalists. I’m now wondering whether theatre PRs will face a similar fate. After all, who needs them to announce anything anymore?

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