Follow one crying eye on

Theatrical re-openings: One matinee and three previews – not that I’m counting!

But yes, actually, I probably am counting. Counting my blessings and lucky stars and all that nonsense. And counting the number of bookings I’ve already made – seventeen, if you count the two that were booked for me by other people.

As theatres started to plan their reopening offerings – a ridiculously complex task I suppose, with uncertain and moving goalposts (ha – would have been easier if they had goalposts, to be honest, and had Wembley-style support) – I was glued to my laptop, credit card in hand, ready to map out my next few months of live entertainment.

In the absence of in-person events, I had subscribed to the supporter/friend schemes of several theatres over the past year. This was initially altruistic – I was more than happy to bung them a little of the money I was otherwise unable to spend during our various lockdowns. I enjoyed feeling more connected to the theatrical world in this way, but now it came to booking, I gladly found that I had also acquired early access to bookings. 

Anyhow, as a result of my modest investment and my patience with the various little queuing men marching jerkily across my screen, I found myself in a rather different queue in the last week of May – outside an ACTUAL THEATRE. The Theatre Royal Haymarket to be precise, to see Love Letters written by AR Gurney. And a queue – it has to be said – of rather-less-sprightly-than-the-virtual-queueing-man ageing punters, excitedly or ineptly donning their best face-masks and trying to explain to the staff that “No, we don’t have the NHS Covid app thingy” and in fact “we’ve left our mobile telephones at home today” so they would each have to spend a few minutes giving alternative contact details before being allowed in. While I waited, more amused than impatient. All to get a pre-teatime rejuvenating glimpse of Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove reading letters to each other, charting their long-lasting friendship and love affair, from their respective desks either side of the stage.

Socially distanced set at Theatre Royal Haymarket

I’ll own up to an enduring fancy to ‘the curly haired one from the Professionals’, but the realisation that Mr Shaw is now 76 had calmed me such that I could focus properly on the play. In fact, after the initial disappointment that there wasn’t going to be much action on the stage, this was a nicely affecting production and definitely worthy of the four stars I had seen in reviews before booking.

The huge gaps between audience members were a sad reminder of our times though. Every second row had been left empty and the large theatre felt more like a provincial cinema barely populated for a B-movie screening, back in the day. For those who, like me, are very short when sitting down, the lack of hulking people in the row immediately in front is a real advantage in many of the traditional West End theatres, and I admit I rather enjoyed my relative isolation and unobstructed good view from the rear stalls, but it did seem just a teeny bit lonely – and I know it doesn’t pay the bills.

People back at the National – spirit of hopefulness on the South Bank

The next two productions I had booked were both at the National Theatre, and in both cases I had plumped for Preview performances (cheaper, I think, and slightly more choice of seats when the little queuing man said it was my turn). Firstly After Life three weeks ago and then Under Milk Wood last week.

 After Life, written by Jack Thorne, was in fact my first ever visit to the Dorfman Theatre, so I was excited about that, and a friend had explained the background to the production (adapted by Bunny Christie, Jeremy Herrin and Jack Thorne from a Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda) so I was looking forward to seeing how it would be done. It did not disappoint on either count.

The story here was of what happens immediately after death – an imagined week spent in a staging post where Guides assist the recently deceased (the Guided) to determine their most precious memory, which is then carefully reconstructed and ‘performed’ for each person before they proceed into Eternity, taking this memory (and only this memory) with them. An interesting idea, where the qualities of memories, or life events, are considered: do these memories resolve anything, are they clichéd, what is most important from a life?

Poignant pairs of shoes before After Life at the Dorfman

There was no big star in the cast (although possibly some future stars – Luke Thallon? Millicent Wong? both shining) and it was played nicely as an ensemble.  I particularly loved the staging. Whereas larger theatre spaces seem even more cavernous with reduced audiences, somehow this one seemed to shrink in to fit. There were lamps on little tables between the seating ‘bubbles’, and this meant that the audience surroundings blended into the performance space.  The huge wall of filing cabinets at one end served as fittingly stark grey decoration but was also a functioning part of the production, drawers pulled out to allow for some climbing, and ultimately revealing a secret door – the unassuming portal to the afterworld. The neatly positioned pairs of shoes in the performance area when we arrived – cleared carefully by the actors before the start – were eventually replaced at the end by the shoes left by the Guided characters, as they took their symbolically re-enacted precious memories and passed on to eternity.

For me, it was completely wonderful that this was a cast of twelve – not a ‘lockdown’ monologue or two-hander, but an ensemble piece with action and interaction. It felt intimate too – we were so close and the memories shared were so personal.

Olivier stage – shrouded before the start of Under Milk Wood

I have slightly less to say about Under Milk Wood. This is, of course, a well-known text and contains the magnificently evocative words of Dylan Thomas – many of which I found I could remember quite vividly from my schooldays where I must have studied it briefly. This version, another ensemble performance, began and ended in a current-day Care Home for the elderly. I confess I didn’t much like this at first, and the ‘new’ dialogue seemed trivial, but perhaps this helped to emphasise the power of  Thomas’s original evocative words which formed the core of the production. Michael Sheen’s Owain, visiting his elderly and dementia-suffering father (Karl Johnson) found that the only way to cut through the bewilderment was to describe the past, using the well-known script and incorporating the other care home residents to act out the cameo roles.

It was, of course, very well done. Acting in the round on a Covid-safely reconfigured Olivier stage, and bringing their own props on with them for each tableau, the cast brought it all to life. Michael Sheen was a shaggy-haired and disheveled lead, although I felt it was more of an ensemble and perhaps should be seen less as a vehicle for him. But it was all an excellent bums-on-seats opening for this theatre.

Flying harpsichords (or Fortepianos?) at the Bridge Theatre

My most recent Preview was Monday evening this week at my favourite Bridge Theatre: Bach & Sons, a new play by Nina Raine starring Simon Russell Beale, which follows the great and prolific musician through the later part of his life. This was a colourful exploration of JS Bach’s work and family life: pitting the instinctive musical gifts of his elder son Wilhelm (Willi) against the more technically competent and hard-working success of the younger CPE Bach (Carl); contrasting the emotion in his compositions with the repressed familial feelings for his wives and children, especially the deep enduring love for his lost first wife Barbara which seemed only to truly emerge in his music; charting Carl’s ambition dogged by the psychologically problematic relationship with his father for whom none of his work is quite good enough; revealing an unshakeable Lutheran belief alongside earthly passions – all reflected in the music.

There were some great asides and passing comments on musical technique, in particular counterpoint and fugue, and a demonstration of changing fashions and styles of composition, including the cruel counterpoint challenge from Frederick the Great in the second Act. All were illustrated with musical extracts (a list of 20 such extracts printed in the programme, to which of course I should now go and listen again, although I know that my diligence will fall short here). 

The relationships between JS Bach and these two elder sons drive much of the play and it was therefore by happy chance that I was able to invite my own son, an accomplished musician himself, to accompany me at short notice. The fact that both of us have studied and performed music (me at a much less prestigious or advanced level than him, admittedly), perhaps allowed us to glean more from the script, but this production would still stand up beautifully without that level of background. 

The social distancing of the seating at the Bridge Theatre somehow did not leave the auditorium looking as sparse as the Olivier had been. It also seemed different to the last time I was there in a socially distanced production – perhaps they have managed to legitimately squeeze a few more people in, or maybe it was larger staging – and they had not only stopped taking temperatures on arrival, but also allowed for an interval, although they were carefully policing the wearing of masks throughout and we all had to register with Track & Trace.

The three previews all felt much more like a proper reopening than the monologues and smaller casts on offer last autumn. It feels more hopeful – and for sure by now the National and the Bridge had been hoping to fill in the gaps in seating with new releases of tickets. This should, fingers firmly crossed, now happen from 19th July – although I confess I might still decide to wear my super-thick mask through which I am now able to breathe almost normally!

Old Vic by moonlight – beckons me back

Now, I’m eagerly anticipating a return to the Old Vic next week.

Follow one crying eye on