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Phil Willmott travels through theatreland…

Producing theatre has all the job security of betting on a roulette wheel. No one can ever predict what will be a hit or not.


Having said that canny producer David Pugh has often managed to produce critic proof long runners by casting the right celebs with fashionable directors in high profile projects. He was the producer who gave us a naked Harry Potter in horse mutilation psycho shocker Equus. Who needs to worry about reviews when you’ve get that kind of publicity? Now he’s turned our mum’s favourite film, Calendar Girls(pictured), into a musical with all our mum’s favourite actresses. Tickets are flying out of the door as they did when he cast our mum’s favourite aging hotty, Nigel Havers in an adaptation of Rebecca. It’s the ladies that buy the majority of the nations theatre tickets so get the recipe right for them and you’ve a good chance of your show being a long runner.

The other busy ticket buyers are we gay men - my production of F**cking Men at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington is still running and selling well three months after it was supposed to close! So perhaps it’s little wonder that there are so many productions targeted at us at the moment. Unfortunately our ticket buying mite doesn’t seem to be propping up the musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Gossip is that it’s really struggling to find enough audience. This is real shame – the show’s a feel good injection of sunshine from start to finish. Although perhaps the number of seats with a restricted view of the bus roof is putting people off and I hear that bus breaks down regularly, forcing management to offer disgruntled punters alternative performances.

The sophisticated musicals of Steven Sondheim often struggle commercially. Beloved by theatre aficionados (us) they’re much lauded in exquisite little productions in small arty theatres but they seldom survive once the queens and show biz folk have all moved on. Apparently Trevor Nunn’s production of Sondhiem’s A little Night Music at the Garrick Theatre has plenty of empty seats at the moment. This is a real shame because it’s a wonderful evening full of great acting, clever lyrics, sweet melodies and subtle nuance. It concerns a lakeside house party in nineteenth century Sweden, bare with me, where a series of interlinking affairs keep the hetero sexual tension sizzling. Much of it centres on a glamorous actress and this character gets to sing the famous Send in the Clowns number. The roles’ often given to an older actress, last time it was Judy Dench, which rather dampens the sex but here she’s played by the Amazonian beauty Hannah Waddingham and you can really see why the men are in a constant state of sexual anticipation. Handsome young Gabriel Vick is sexy as the young master of the house; banging the willing maid and Maureen Lipman gives a camp turn as a sharp tongued dowager. Go. It’s like sipping fine Champagne.

Plays at the National Theatre don’t usually have to worry about sustaining months of business. They tend to only run for a set number of performances. One of the most interesting productions of the last few months, The Death of the King’s Horsemen is coming to the end of its run, there are some good ticket offers on the National Theatre’s website, and its well worth catching. I sent padawn critic David Rees to investigate, here’s his review.

“This is seriously hard going (especially in the first half when much of the dialogue takes the form – literally – of riddles). But if you stick with it, concentrate, and listen hard to everything anyone says, it also turns out to be brilliant. A Nigerian king has died and, in accordance with tradition, his horseman is expected to respond by committing ritual suicide. But the British are in power, and when a colonial official gets wind of the rite and tries to stop it, he brings calamity on all concerned. The first half takes place predominantly amongst the natives as they prepare the king’s horseman, Elesin, for his death. There’s a party atmosphere going on, with much dancing (exquisitely choreographed), singing and beautiful, beautiful production design. Flames flicker at the edge of the stage, earth is scattered with brooms, men stand in for bushes tousled in the wind.
The action then shifts to the colonists, who, having heard what’s happening, send out their emissaries – Nigerians employed by the British as police – to prevent the suicide, while trying to ensure that a society ball goes ahead as planned. Hilarious scenes ensue as the native women impede their attempts, mimicking the mannerisms of the colonists as they do so. As the lights go out on the first half, it still doesn’t make much sense but the second half does bring it all together. Everything falls apart and you realise that you understand every single character on the stage, that you hate them all, and that you love them all. Which, for any artistic work, play or otherwise, is an astonishing achievement.
A large ensemble cast deliver uniformly brilliant performances, whether dancing and singing, playing the drums, just plain acting or (I kid you not) performing as human furniture. The production design remains superlative throughout and the costumes aren’t far off, either. This would be pretty close to what I’d call a perfect production but for the complexity of the material. Even, so, as far as I’m concerned Death and the King’s Horseman is a must-see.”

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