Pub theatre

The Guardian recently ran an article about the resurgence of pub theatre, demonstrating that once again our author is well-ahead of the curve (in some areas, in others he can’t even find the curve and is uncertain whether one even exists).  I have been an habitué of pub theatres for more than 4 years now.  [Is it just me, or do any other (male or equivalent) readers feel cheated when typing (or writing) a French adjective formed from a past participle that they cannot correctly add the second ‘e’ for feminine agreement?]

What is not to love?  The title clearly illustrates the two key attributes for any potential visitor: there is a theatre “in” (or usually above) a pub!  Not only that, but it is usually a small, intimate theatre producing new writing and the pub is generally a good one with a fine range of well-kept cask ales.

The Guardian article included a production still (look at me, using industry jargon!) from the play that, in many ways, started it all.  It was a shot from Luke Owen‘s Unscorched which was the first time I visited the Finborough Theatre (a place where I am now often recognised by the team), was almost my first visit to a pub theatre and was the play which started my obsession with new writing in the theatre.  Since that day, my visits to the West End have declined to zero and my theatre-going has become increasingly dominated by new plays.  My attendance of the classics has become limited to those staged by the Nuffield Theatre – but a short walk or bus-ride from my door – or at the cinema via NT Live (similarly physically proximate).  This switch has also had the benefit of making my theatre-going budget stretch a lot further.

My visits to pub theatre – which are mostly in London (though I am tempted to try and set one up myself nearer to home) – have been somewhat restricted by the pain of getting to them from Southampton (and more significantly getting home again) by public transport.  They tend to be located away from the centre of London on underground lines not served from Waterloo.  However, on the Sunday before last I made a major transport breakthrough.  I discovered that, via the magic of the Overground, I can be delivered from Clapham Junction via a very frequent service to West Brompton in less than 10 minutes.  From there it is but a short walk to the Finborough.  This knocks 45-60 minutes off my previous route via Waterloo and the Jubilee and District Lines and saves me nearly a fiver on my train ticket!  This same little arc of the Overground also takes in Theatre 503 (another pub theatre) and the Bush Theatre (not in a pub, but still a small theatre producing new writing).  I also have the feeling that the Overground is largely unknown to tourists, which eliminates a whole range of frustrations which plague its subterranean sibling.  All hail the London Overground!  Your rolling stock was not named Capitalstar in vain!

Using this new knowledge, I found myself in the Finborough Arms enjoying a very fine pint of Luppol (not a new high-performance lubricant for your engine, but an unfiltered ale by Clouded Minds brewery) a mere 90 minutes after leaving Southampton Central.  I then enjoyed the drama of Late Company by the ridiculously young and talented Jordan Tannahill (he was 23 when he wrote it, and still hasn’t reached 30) another stunning Canadian play brought across the Atlantic by the Finborough team.  If the opportunity arises, go see Late Company – it is an uncomfortable experience at times, but is wonderful, thoughtful writing.  I then wended my way home via Theatre 503 and the excellent Sharp Teeth, starring inter alia The Greeners and Ben Norris.

Sharp Teeth is a cross-genre night taking in music and spoken word along the way which is usually resident in Bristol, but this was its first outing in London.  Bristol is, in theory, closer and easier to get to than London – but the operators of our rail companies find it inconceivable that the resident of a provisional UK city should wish to visit a nearby provincial city for an evening of fun.  Whether it be Salisbury, Bath, Chichester, Brighton or Bristol the last train back to Southampton is cunningly timed to ensure that any visit to the theatre (or similar cultural activity) will cause you to miss it.  Is ATOC in the pocket of big B&B?  Or is it just that the denizens of Southampton have a particularly lairy reputation?

Returning to Late Company, this is the fourth stunning play by a Canadian playwright I have seen in the last couple of years: two at the Finborough (the other being Proud by Michael Healey) and two at the Nuffield Theatre.  This latter pair were performed by the Nuffield Youth Theatre, Girls like that and Consensual, both written by Evan Placey.  These were both stunningly good productions but Consensual, in particular, never made you think about the word “youth” in “youth theatre”.  For my money (and as paying audience, it was my money), it could stand with any professional production I’ve seen in recent years.  The ambition of the NYT over recent years has been extraordinary.  I’d never been to youth theatre before I moved to Southampton and only went the first time as I had a free ticket and figured “how bad can it be?”.  I now book early for all their productions to make sure I get a seat: the performances are always worth seeing and they can tackle repertoire which the main theatre would struggle to programme economically.

I fear this post has wandered from its original theme of pub theatre, as many members of the NYT could not be legally served in a pub, but I like to feel there is a (tenuous) thread leading the reader through my rant: if not, can we agree to call it Joycean?  It is also becoming increasingly clear that if I am forced to flee this country as an economic migrant, Canada is looking an increasingly attractive option.  So I like to think we’ve all learned something today.

Awkward?

This post is the long-awaited sequel to Ground Zero, covering the continuing adventures of the Blog Soul Brothers, following their first meeting this past Sunday.  Taking my cue from Peter Jackson, I am planning to expand relatively modest source material into a nine hour CGI epic (OK, there won’t be much CGI – but I suppose I might inveigle on my brother to bring some of his critically-acclaimed Paint skills to bear).

When we left our heroes, they were enjoying a responsible half (each – budget limitations did not force us to share a single half) in a public house located in London’s trendy Islington.  What happened next will astound you!  (And people say I’ve learnt nothing from Buzzfeed).

Given that we had both made the trek into London and that I could not be certain we could sustain an entire day in conversation (not, in fact, a problem: I’m now fairly sure the act of talking could carry us through several days, if required – or even if not), I thought it might be an idea to organise some sort of structured activity for the evening.  Given the literary nature of our brotherhood, I naturally thought of the theatre – and while options are limited on a Sunday, the Finborough does offer a performance and via my (paid) friendship I could score us a pair of free tickets (I am an attentive “date”, but may be doing things on the cheap).  Thus it was we made our way, via the UK’s most famous resistance movement, to sun drenched Earl’s Court.  It is at this stage that the attentive reader will be starting to think (probably with some justification) that I have massively oversold what happened next.  Let’s just say that I was directing that particular sentence at those whose bar of amazement (and wouldn’t that be a great name for a piece of confectionary?) is set pretty low, and leave it at that.

I will admit that I had not massively researched the play in advance, beyond the convenient nature of its timing, and so it was that we attended the World Premiere of A Third by Laura Jacqmin.  The staging was very interesting, with the theatre re-cast as the interior of a New York apartment.  Most of the audience were perched around the edge, but some had to sit on the apartment’s furniture.  Having been set up by my brother (who nabbed the last edge seat), I found myself sitting at the dining table (though I didn’t remain here for the whole performance).  The “third” in the title refers to an established couple bringing in a third person (initially singular but later plural) to boost their enjoyment of the activities associated with, what I will in future (thanks to Adam Rutherford) be referring to as, gene flow events.  In consequence, all of the cast (of four) spend a substantial amount of the play in their skimpies (though the play also boasted the most costume changes I’ve ever seen at the Finborough) – and, given the very modest size of the theatre, the audience is very close to the “action”.  At various times, I found myself little more than an inch from some of the cast, and at one stage was moved from the dining table to the couch so that two of the characters could get physical (to quote Olivia Newton-John) without me becoming the unwanted meat in their amorous sandwich.  My brother found this very amusing, though I was far from the worst located of the audience when it came to close contact with the cast (and being at the edge was not as secure a defence as some had assumed).  Part of the joy of the play is watching the rest of the audience and their reactions to what is happening: the staging makes us all really rather complicit in the events portrayed.  It also became important after a certain stage that my brother and I did not look directly at each other for fear of collapsing in inappropriate laughter.

The play is rather good and deliberately funny in many places – and I had a chance to enjoy much more comfortable seating than is theatrically traditional.  The moral, if one exists, is probably that you want to be very sure you are the sort of people who can handle it before you invite a third party (or parties) into the marital bed (not just wish that you were such folk).  One of my main takeaways was the sheer size of the feet of one of the actors – they were massive: long, wide and tall.  I’ve seen smaller examples gracing CGI giants, and the rest of his body did not seem proportionately huge.  How the poor boy acquires shoes – or even socks – I don’t know, I suppose he may have them made specially.  Or perhaps he is allowed to keep his foot-based costume after each acting job?  Was it this hope of a regular supply of footwear which drove him to follow Thespis, I wonder?

Writing this post, I have been struck that my choice of play could be considered a slightly awkward one, given its thematic content and the fact this was the first time two people had come together in the flesh (as it were).  I would like to reassure readers that there was no underlying motive (and I have cross-examined my subconscious very closely on this topic) in my selection and I am not attempting to force anyone into a ménage-à-trois (or even à-quatre) against their will.

If I am honest, the real revelation of our evening at the theatre was the joy of going with a friend.  I have always gone stag to the theatre in the past, but discussing the play afterwards with my brother – first on the tube and then on the Southbank over a hot chocolate – was an absolute joy.  I suppose it probably helps that, as a writer, he is full of interesting insights and questions – but I had no idea what I’d been missing out on all these years.  I may start dragging him to the theatre on a much more frequent basis.  Perhaps this largely anti-social stance to culture of mine has been a dreadful mistake?

All good things must come to an end (as I believe the Second Law of Thermodynamics insists – it also has little succour to offer bad things) and so a little before eleven, we caught our separate carriages (as supplied by BREL and Siemens) home.  Conversation had to move to the form of SMS text messaging and my inadequate thumbs were pressed into service.  I am slightly surprised (and disappointed) that giffgaff have not emailed me to check if my phone has been stolen: in a twenty-four hour period I sent (and received) more texts than usually occurs in an entire year.

Is this the end for our heroes?  Did Southwest Trains defy expectation and actually deliver them to their respective homes in a manner congruent with its timetable-based promises?  Did anyone think to drop an unaccountably vitreous item of footwear before the clock struck midnight?

To be continued…

Not serious theatre

I am rather fond of the Finborough theatre, it has introduced me to a number of exciting, challenging, new plays over the last 18 months – Unscorched and Silent Planet particularly stand-out in my mind as I write.  They do also stage revivals, typically of neglected works.  Its location can be a challenge, particularly on the day of a Chelsea home game when one has to share the streets of Earls Court and the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre) with boisterous football aficionados, but is not really that remote from Waterloo (where I am – on a good day – delivered by Southwest Trains).

Often on a Sunday, they stage two different plays – a matinée and an evening performance – which does boost the benefit side of the trip-to-London equation.  The downside is the risk of engineering work and the fact the last train home goes at 22:54 (it would seem that Stagecoach do not expect the denizens of Southampton to stay out late on a Sunday, unlike the lotus eaters of nearby Portsmouth who have services until 00:50).  Still, yesterday I decide to brave the outbound replacement bus service as far as Eastleigh and keep my fingers crossed for the 22:54 home.  As a result, I spent the afternoon and evening indulging in Victorian fun (for the avoidance of doubt, no laudanum was consumed by your reporter).

The matinee was of the rarely performed Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Princess Ida.  Given the diminutive size of the Finborough, this was akin to having G&S with a pretty full cast performed in your living room (if you had also invited 39 friends to join you).  The orchestra, for obvious reasons, had to be reduced (by transcription) to two pianists and the audience were a little cramped – but the whole thing was quite an experience , especially when the full cast (a baker’s dozen) are on stage singing and acting at once.  I’m pretty sure I have never seen Ida performed before, but I did know one of the songs – as a man with tiefe stimme, I had explored a little of Lord Gama’s output as part of my attempts to become a singer (one generally does have to play the elderly in G&S, a role continue to transition into).  I have to say the performance delivered all that one could have wished for: young lovers, a wicked guardian and lots of silliness (and, I must admit, some slightly dodgy gender politics).  The staging was as thrifty and clever as I have come to expect at the Finborough and only an audience member with the the hardest of hearts could have failed to have a wonderful time (even if corrective knee and buttock surgery may have been advisable afterwards).

Between the afternoon and evening performances I found myself wandering the streets of Earls Court in search of victuals.  As I was doing this, someone coming towards me seemed oddly familiar – not an unusual occurrence as I am more than capable of recognising complete strangers and also because I was not wearing my specs.  I tend not to wear my glasses when just ambling about as I have realised (as Hollywood did many years before me) that most of the world looks better in slightly relaxed focus – and it also makes catching glimpses of myself in reflective surfaces substantially less traumatic.  However, the impression remained as we grew closer together and I finally realised that it was Prince Hilarion (once and future husband to Princess Ida) in mufti and riding a skateboard.  Now I do realise that these people are just actors and he is not really a Hungarian prince, but it was still oddly jarring to see him in this mode – despite the fact that I had already seen him dressed as both a prince and a classically-attired woman during the course of the afternoon.  The lad had a fine voice, and I suspect some Teutonic heritage which means that while he was unlikely to have had to change his name on joining Equity (surely there was not already a Zac Wancke?) he may well have been horribly bullied at school.

Refuelled, I returned to the theatre foyer and enjoyed some of the liquid refreshment on offer as part of a mid-west beer festival being staged(!) there – well, it covered Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Shropshire (for some reason) and how else might one describe that group of counties? – before further Victorian fun in the form of Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor.  This play is (in)famous as being the one Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.  I had always assumed that this would be some serious work of art inspired by Melpomene, but as it transpires it owes far more to her sister Thalia, i.e. it was broad comedy, verging on farce.  Luckily, I survived the fateful line – when John Wilkes Booth (playing the eponymous hero) carried out the wicked (and decidedly unheroic) deed under the cover of a reliable laugh – and so remain unassassinated (for now) and saw the denouement.  Oddly, I am unaware of any other murder committed under similar cover – but perhaps MI5 should be recruiting more comedians (or Brian Rix) rather than sitting around reading our email.  The current James Bond franchise could also benefit from being a tad less po-faced.   The play still made me (and many of my fellow audience members) laugh despite being 150+ years old (the play, I am barely a third of that) and having gone unperformed in the capital for more than a century – or perhaps my sense of humour is just rather Victorian.  I couldn’t help wondering what the Americans of the 1860s would have made of it and their portrayal therein – but according to the programme it was a huge success (other than depleting North America to the tune of one president – and we can’t blame the playwright for that).

Victorian values have a terribly poor press – but I think this may be because people espousing them usually make very poor choices from the menu on offer – but they can offer a very entertaining day out and still deliver you to Waterloo in time for the train home.  I can thoroughly recommend it, but would note that this opinion may not necessarily generalise to other activities hailing from the same regnal period.

Theatrical lessons

Last week, I rather rashly enjoyed evenings of culture on three separate (and worse, consecutive) school nights.  This, in itself, taught me the valuable (if fairly obvious) lesson that I really don’t have the stamina for this degree of fun – however, this is not either of the two lessons I plan to bore you with this e’en (as I’m writing.  You may like to read this post during an evening yourself to reproduce some of the appropriate ambience).

The third night of culture involved some of Vivaldi’s lesser known sacred B-sides, which was enjoyable but did not generate any particular insights in this particular member of the audience.  The two earlier nights were spent at the theatre and each did generate a lesson which will help to guide me in what remains of my time on earth.

On Tuesday night, I managed to blag a free ticket to the press night of the Nuffield Theatre’s production for Christmas (not a panto).  OK, blag is probably not the right word – as a supporter of the theatre, the free ticket was one of my perks – but blagging sounds so much more exciting.  The production was a version of The Snow Queen and was very entertaining: a great success with the middle-aged man demographic (as represented by the author), but I believe the much younger folk present had fun too.   Without the free ticket, I probably would’t have gone – thinking myself too old and lacking a convenient child to provide a fig-leaf of plausibility – but that would have been my loss.

Talking of being too old, Southampton’s other theatre – the Mayflower – is staging a more traditional (for the 21st century) pantomime in Cinderella.  In this production, Buttons – a role based on a Victorian page-boy – is being played by Brian Conley – a man somewhat older than I am.  This means it is not too late for me to give my own Buttons, or indeed Romeo or other juvenile lead on stage.  All I need now are a few acting lessons… (and to finish – or indeed start – writing my panto).

Anyway, to pick up the narrative thread once more, I had a lovely time at the Nuffield.  As well as the play, I was invited to the pre- and post-show drinks and nibbles which were great fun.  I could talk to theatrical people about the theatre (rather than merely harangue readers of this blog) and acquired heaps of recommendations for productions to go and see (all I need now is some extra hours in the day).  However, the primary lesson came during the interval, when I discovered that it is very much more time-consuming to obtain an ice-cream when a significant portion of the audience is under 10.  I’m more used to the situation where most of the audience is over 70, when it usually takes 60 seconds-or-less (or fewer if you believe time to be discrete rather than continuous, and there is some theoretical support for a granular reading of spacetime).  As a result, I had a beer in the interval (a bottle of Flack Manor’s Flack Catcher, since you ask) as the queue at the bar was correspondingly shorter than normal.  Never let it be said that I cannot adapt to changing circumstances.  I was slightly worried that the lack of calories (though beer does, of course contain calories of the soi-disant empty kind) would leave me struggling on the cycle ride home, but luckily the post-play nibbles came to the rescue.

The following day I had to visit Woking for “the man”.  In an attempt to salvage something from the day, I decided to continue on into London after my wage-slavery was over to visit the Finborough Theatre.  Here, I discovered the importance of being au-fait with the fixture list of the Premier League.  The Finborough is (I assume) reasonably near the ground of Chelsea Football Club, and as a result the tube to Earls Court, streets around same and Finborough Arms pub (which is also the entrance and foyer to the theatre) were heaving with (mostly) men with more blue-and-white clothing than is entirely usual.  I think for a more restful pre-theatrical interlude, I will try and avoid visiting at such a time in future – which means I shall have to pay at least a little attention to the rather curious world of professional football, a modest ethnographic study (if you will).  Anyway, ascending the stairs from the heat and tumult of the pub to the cool and peace of the theatre above was most welcome.  The play, Silent Planet by Eve Leigh, was excellent – a work looking at the nature of freedom and captivity and the importance of books and stories.

I hope these hard-won lessons will be of value to at least some of the readers of GofaDM – but if not, I can’t honestly say I’ll be losing any sleep over the fact.

Bit’ a Schubert. [The] guy was a dude.

It is a little more than two years ago that I started going to the theatre regularly, some might say obsessively.  Over time, I have moved from classics and comedies and, indeed, the intersection of the two (I’ll leave readers to construct their own Venn diagram), into darker territory.  I do begin to wonder if I may (unbeknownst to myself) be a comic book hero, as they all seem to be heading in the same direction – with Batman very much in the vanguard.

The first theatrical experience I can remember was a somewhat terrifying pantomime in Canterbury – this wasn’t (so far as I can recall) a bunch of current pop hints linked together by someone off of Emmerdale as tends to be the current vogue – with a very angry (and frightening) Christmas pudding as the villain (or so I remember, but this may not be 100% accurate as it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger).  Despite this trauma, I have not developed any sort of phobia about plum duff in later life (though I suppose there is still time).

My first “adult” experiences of theatre were visiting the Oxford Playhouse when at university.   I can still remember a rather young Helena Bonham-Carter playing a somewhat unconvincing Ariel in a student version of the Tempest, a very funny melodrama entitled Black Eyed Susan and an amazing performance of Oklahoma! by the local operatic society (for the avoidance of doubt, caused by the limits of English punctuation, HB-C as Ariel appeared in only one of these performances).  On one of my visits back to my alma mater over the summer, I revisited the Playhouse to see Dunsinane – a sort of “what happened next?” for Macbeth.  The play was excellent, but the Playhouse interior was entirely unrecognisable from my student days (down, I think, to refurbishment rather than amnesia).

But, enough of the nostalgia already, yesterday I took the train up to London for an afternoon and evening of quite dark theatre (though not without its laughs), with both plays owing something to the topic of child abuse.  My first was in the West End: a place I usually avoid as a result of the high prices, poor sightlines and poor quality ice cream offerings.  However, Mojo was very well reviewed, boasted a stellar cast (half of which I had previously seen on stage) and a famous auteur.  The play was excellent, very funny at times and at others pitch black.  The cast were brilliant – and must be exhausted playing eight shows a week as it is fairly physical play and has a lot of words, often spoken very quickly and at volume (my voice wouldn’t survive a single performance in at least 4 of the 6 roles).  Daniel Mays, in particular, must have had quite the vocal training to survive his performance.  I am still amazed when I see actors that I have seen before – whether on stage or screen – how unlike their previous roles they are (well, except Sean Connery – but I’ve never seen him on the stage).  I realise this is a fairly critical part of the job, but it remains somehow magical to me.

As seems fairly common with my theatrical “picks”, we do see quite a lot of the cast and so I can say that stage acting does seem to keep the weight off quite effectively (at least for those in their 20s).  I wonder if Sport England or the Department for Health should be promoting Amateur Dramatics more assiduously to tackle the obesity crisis?

The play also provided a celebrity spotting moment, as at half-time I discovered the elderly head which very occasionally blocked my view of part of the stage, belonged to Peter Bowles.

After pit stops at Foyles and 10 Greek Street, I headed to the Finborough Theatre.  This is a place I’ve been planning to visit for ages, but somehow never managed to do until yesterday.  Their website warns you to allow plenty of time for your journey as latecomers are not admitted (and I could see why, as to reach my seat I had to cross the “stage”) and they were right – the Piccadilly line was jiggered and I had to find an alternative route to Earls Court (hiking at speed to Westminster followed by the District Line).  The Finborough is on the top (I think – I didn’t count the stairs and compare against the height of the building – pure laziness I’ll freely admit) floor of what was once a pub, but is now a wine bar, and is a very intimate venue – which I much prefer.  The whole theatre – stage and “auditorium” was little (if any) larger than my lounge – so you are definitely close to the action.

The play Unscorched was about a man who starts a job requiring him to view on-line child pornography as part of the effort to shut-down the websites, rescue the children and prosecute those involved.  It follows how this affects him over a three month period.  This sounds awful, but the play was incredible – funny at times, moving, thought-provoking and one of those that will stick with me.  The two main actors Ronan Raftery and John Hodgkinson were both excellent and there was great support from the rest of the cast.  I think it might be the best play I have seen yet – and I have seen quite a few, all good and many really excellent.  It was also less than one third of the price of Mojo: I really don’t know how they get the economics to work (and I do worry about such things).  The staging was also very clever which may have helped, requiring little more than some carpentry, some carpet tiles and a little ironmongery (hinges et al).  I caught the final performance, and I’m pretty sure held the door open on the way downstairs for the playwright – Luke Owen (who was irritatingly youthful).  It won a prize (judged I’m sure by those far more qualified than I) – the Papa Tango prize.  This is a fairly new prize for new writers and its first winner was Dominic Mitchell, who later wrote In the Flesh which has already been praised on this very blog.  I shall have to keep a very careful eye out for the winner in 2014 as the Papa Tango panel and I seem have some serious commonality in taste.

Choosing new, or newish, plays with edgier content but that are either well-reviewed or have potentially interesting content really seems to be paying off for me.  This is not something the me of even three years ago would ever have expected to say (or even type) – I’d always assumed that new plays were a form of penance for the audience (and perhaps some are and I’ve been lucky to miss them).

The day held only two disappointments: (i) Southwest Trains – of which more another time and (ii) the shortage of women – two plays, eleven actors and only one who could boast a pair of X chromosomes.

Oh, the title you ask: that is a direct quite from Unscorched and is almost the last line of the play.  Rarely has a truer phrase been spoken on stage!