Sunday theatre question: A song you always associate a play

This week's Sunday theatre question is inspired by a comment made on my Instagram post about how a song played during a production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre became forever associated with that play.

Sunday theatre question song

It got me thinking about which songs take me back to a play whenever I hear them. 

I've always loved music (just not musicals) and can find songs very evocative of particular times and places, so it isn't surprising that a stand out scene or play can get linked with a song that is played over it in a particular production.

Probably the strongest link is Chris Isaak's Wicked Game which was played during a pivotal scene in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, starring Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby.

It fit so perfectly, tonally and lyrically to what was going on, and whenever I hear it, I think of that play and that scene.

Another song that I always associate with a play is David Bowie's Starman which was used during My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse. It is a song with a bittersweet tone that worked perfectly when it was played for a dance scene at the end of the play.

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Lockdown London theatre walks: Bridge Theatre and a conversion to the groundling experience

One of the newest theatres in London, the Bridge Theatre has already made an impression, not least for making the groundling experience enjoyable.

Bridge Theatre Feb 2021
Bridge Theatre lockdown Feb 2021

Yes, yes, I know there are plenty of groundling fans out there, but whenever I've tried it at the Globe, I've ended up frustrated with the view, tired and cold.

But the groundling experience at the Bridge was completely different. It was indoors for a start. More importantly, there was no fixed stage for the audience to queue up early for so you could get a spot at the front and see properly.

Crowds are always problematic for me as I'm short, so I end up trying to peer over peoples shoulders to see.

I get ahead of myself; I haven't even mentioned the play. Actually, it was two different Shakespeare productions: Julius Caesar and then A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Attracted by the starry cast

And I have to confess if Julius Caesar hadn't starred Ben Whishaw - and Michelle Fairley and David Morrissey - I may not have bothered. And I certainly wouldn't have opted for the groundling experience. (I booked a seat for later in the run, just in case.)

Because the Bridge is a new theatre, the auditorium has been designed to be flexible with a wide variety of staging options. For Julius Caesar (and then MSND), this meant bits of stage rising from the floor so that the location of the performance changed frequently.

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Lockdown London theatre walks: Arcola Theatre - memory of a famous Friend and a friendship

When I think of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, two things immediately spring to mind. The first involves a famous Friend, the second a friend.

Arcola Theatre Apr 2021
Arcola Theatre in lockdown April 2021

The famous Friend was Rupert Friend, and he was in the Dennis Potter play, Brimstone and Treacle, in the studio space.

It was dark, humourous, and at times uncomfortable play to watch. The play has a domestic setting, but the protagonist Martin (played by Friend) breaks the fourth wall, making asides and direct eye contact with the audience.

Martin is the sort of character written and performed to bring the audience into his confidence while simultaneously making you feel that confidence could be misplaced at any time.

The studio space is small, so proximity to Martin and the sense that something isn't quite right makes that moment when he does catch your eye an all the more uncomfortable experience.

Dangerous stare

Particularly when you are sat on the front row, his head snaps around suddenly, and he fixes you with a dangerous stare, holding your gaze for what seems like an age.

It certainly wasn't for just a moment.

What also makes it memorable is that the character was a real departure for Rupert Friend. I'd seen him in costume dramas on screen, and in the Little Dog Laughed on stage which was a little boring.

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World Theatre Day: 47 things I love about going to the theatre

It is World Theatre Day, and while it has been a horrible year with theatres closed, for the most part, I want to celebrate and look forward to when we can enjoy live performance again.

So here are 47 things I love about going to the theatre:

1. The familiarity of the walk up to a theatre I've visited many times before.

2. Patiently listening to the front of house staff telling me where the loos are and the directions for my seat even though I'm a regular and know the theatre layout like my own flat.

3. The sound of the 2-minute warning bell.

4. The fact that it isn't really 2 minutes, and it's just to chivvy people along.

5. The buzz of the auditorium before the lights go down.

6. The way the chatter quickly dies down when they do.

7. The £10 Monday crowd.

8. Getting a fantastic day seat deal for something you really want to see.

9. Getting front-row seats.

10. The difference between the weekday audience and the weekend audience.

Donmar Warehouse Blindness
Donmar Warehouse Blindness 2020

11. Not wanting to stare when the actors are already on stage but feeling it's rude to ignore them.

12. Seeing the set for the first time (if there is a curtain).

13. Entering the auditorium and not knowing where the stage will be because it's a flexible performance space.

14. Missing the first few lines because you are still busy taking it all in.

15. Getting completely lost in the performance, you gasp or cry.

16. Watching something that makes you feel angry.

17. Watching something that makes you grin or laugh.

18. Enjoying the reaction of those sitting around you.

19. The excitement of seeing a new play by a favourite playwright.

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Sunday theatre question: What play do you want to see revived post-lockdown?

If there was one play/production you could revive to watch when theatres reopen (hopefully) in May, what would you choose?

Sunday theatre post lockdown play

Would you go for something tragic or uplifting? Maybe a comedy because a laugh would be good?

This week my inbox has been busy with announcements about the first swathe of productions opening, and it got me thinking about what I want that first post lockdown theatre experience to be.

And given how tough it's been, combined with what will undoubtedly feel like quite joyful new freedom, I don't want to see something too depressing or tragic. 

Not off the bat anyway.

I'd like to revisit something that had me walking out of the theatre with a spring in my step.

Something like Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Rd, which I saw at the White Bear Theatre and Trafalgar Studios on its transfer.

Or The Dirty Great Love Story from the Arts Theatre, which was a guffaw-inducing modern love story.

Alternatively, I'd like to watch something that is just downright silly, like Bears in Space which was at the Soho Theatre and starred none other than King Joffrey actor Jack Gleeson.

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Lockdown London theatre walks: Barbican Theatre - the stage for epic Shakespeare and event theatre

There were few people outside my theatre friends who could understand my excitement at having spent 6 hours watching Shakespeare performed in Dutch. But it was brilliant, and it was at the Barbican theatre. 

Barbican Theatre entrance March 2021
Barbican Theatre lockdown March 2021

The Barbican is one of only a few big theatres in London I actually like. The auditorium is not only spacious - no cramped seating and having to stand up every time someone wants to get to their seat - but it also has great sightlines.

Its size means it can have big productions, epic in fact hence the 6 hours of Shakespeare.

That was Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies where he cut and shut Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, so you got to see how all those stories interrelate.

It was the follow up to Kings of War which had been a mere 4.5 hours and took a similar approach to Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III (with a smidge of Henry IV part 2 at the very beginning). In hindsight, Kings of War was just a warm-up act - but a bloody good one.

These productions could legitimately be called 'event' theatre. They were more than long plays, they were a new play watching experience. 

Ivo Van Hove broke the taboos of theatre. You were allowed to Tweet and take photos during the performance (except during particular scenes). The audience was invited up onto the stage at certain points to sit among the actors and see the drama unfolding close up.

He used cameras - handheld in some instances to get close to the actors and take the audience into otherwise hidden corners of the set and stage.

And alongside that, you get Van Hove's naturalist directing style and contemporary setting which brings a new dimension to Shakespeare.

In fact, when I rummage through my archive, the Barbican has become the stage for epic Shakespeare.

It's become the London home for the RSC, and it was where I got the opportunity to watch the King and Country Cycle: Four plays in two days - Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and part 2 and Henry V.

Seeing them like that, you got to appreciate the little treatments that carried through all the plays and the 'full story' of Henry V from the landscape he was born into to his most famous victory.

Another epic production, but more so because of its star lead, was Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet. Memorable for the ticket scramble and (smugly) managing to get tickets to see it more than once.

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Sunday theatre question: Favourite solo performance

Sometimes plays just have one actor. They might be playing one character, they might be playing many, but they don't have any other actors to play off. It is just them and their performance.

Sunday theatre question solo performance

There are no distractions, it's just you and them.

Do you have a favourite solo performance?

The moment I started thinking about this, I realised it was going to be really tricky to choose a favourite as I've seen some superb solo performances over the years.

So here are a couple of notable mentions... and my overall winner:

Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys, Royal Court Theatre

A tour de force performance from Carey Mulligan in which she manages to paint a picture of domesticity filling the stage with a family that is only their in our imagination while subtly hinting at something different. It's a play that surprised and a lot of that was down to the delivery.

Cillian Murphy, Misterman, National Theatre

Not only was it a solo performance, it was a solo performance on the Lyttelton stage which is one of the biggest in London. And Cillian Murphy made use of the entire space. It was a superb performance that mixed humour and fun with something darker and sinister, and I still remember it vividly.

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Lockdown London theatre walks: Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington and seeing an early career Olly Alexander

London has an abundance of pub theatres, and the Old Red Lion in Islington is one of my favourites. The space is tiny—pew-like seating on two sides of the tea-tray sized stage.

Old Red Lion theatre

If you sit on the front row, you are in constant fear of tripping an actor because they are so close.

And that is part of the appeal, there is no separation between audience and actors; the drama is happening right there in your face.

One of the stand out plays/productions for me was Mercury Fur in 2012. I'm a huge fan of Philip Ridley's plays and had heard a lot about Mercury Fur but hasn't seen a production of Mercury Fur.

Coincidentally, an early-career Ben Whishaw starred in the very first production back in 2005. Not that I'm trying to weave Ben Whishaw into all my lockdown theatre walk posts. Well, I wasn't, but I may challenge myself now.

Anyway, back to the Old Red Lion. Watching a Philip Ridley play like Mercury Fur in such a small, intimate space means there is no escaping the horror and repugnance. Sitting in this small darkened room, the separation from the comfort of the real world yawns.

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Sunday theatre question: Which is your favourite play based on real events?

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and that's how I preambled my review of The Great Wave at the National Theatre back in 2018.

Sunday theatre question based on real events

It was based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s when North Korean agents abducted ordinary people from Japanese beaches in order to steal their identities or learn the Japanese language and culture.

The play follows two sisters one who has been abducted and the other left behind living with her sister's sudden disappearance.  It's a nail-biting, emotional roller coaster of a play that brought to life events I had no knowledge of.

Which is your favourite play based on real events?

The Great Wave is one of several plays based on real events I've really enjoyed over the years, here are some other notable mentions:

Enron, Noel Coward Theatre - Took a very dry subject and made it interesting and entertaining - bonus points for velociraptors and light sabres.

This House, National Theatre - a dusty 1970s political crisis given a high-energy makeover by writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin.

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Review: Hymn, Almeida Theatre - brotherly love, eulogies and symbolic savings

The 'Chekhov's gun' in Lolita Chakrabati's Hymn is £10,000 in savings. When it gets mentioned early on, the warning light started flashing in my mind.

Hymn Almeida danny sapani adrian lester photo marc brenner
Hymn, on stage via the screen (Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester, photo Marc Brenner)

It belongs to Benny (Danny Sapani), hard-earned and put by bit by bit over the years.  But it is a victim of the story rather than the driver of the narrative.

Benny has recently found out his father is - or was - a local businessman and turns up at his funeral, where he meets his half-brother Gil (Adrian Lester).

The narrative quickly strides forward to when a strong bond has formed; they share a love of music and, in particular, the music of their youth.

There is a celebratory feel to their friendship - helped by some serious dancing and cool 80s beats - as if making up for the decades of missed shared experiences.

But Benny and Gil's relationship contrasts with that between Gil and their father.

Truthful eulogies

Two eulogies bookend the play. The first is revealed to be not quite truthful in how it represents a relationship while the other we'll never know if it was or not. And that made it a slightly problematic device for me.

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