“No Honest Man Would Attend a Play”, The Pilgrim’s Progress – Saltmine Theatre Company

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John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fairly hefty tome to adapt for the stage. I read it many moons ago when I was deeply studying contemporary preachers and theologians (most notably George Fox) of Bunyan’s. I wondered how Richard Hasnip and David Robinson would adapt the text for the stage. I also had reservations, is it really a tale that is applicable to 21st Century people? (as an aside Catherine Trieschmann writes some of the best in my opinion, modern plays dealing with faith and 21st century living, click here for a review of one of her plays)

This production had been organised/sponsored by a local evangelical church and the audience was primarily made up of them and two other local churches. I felt like a lion in a den full of Daniel’s. I’ve often said on this blog that I go to the theatre to be challenged and changed, so I sat back and waited for the play to begin, conscious to not be too biased against the message I knew that was about to come.

The cast of Simon Rodda, Anna Turner, Ben Kessell and Hannah Miller, ably and skillfully presented the numerous characters each needed to perform to bring this story to life. They managed to bring comedy and a light touch when needed, which was an effective contrast against the sadder and more dramatic moments in the journey the character Christian makes.

Christian was played by Caleb Mitchell and he  portrayed his journey of ups and downs with the necessary struggle, fear, grit and determination that Christian has on his journey to the Golden City. The scene where he comes to the foot of Jesus’ cross and the huge rucksack he’s been carrying all this time, symbolic of his sin, suddenly falls away was an especially moving moment.

The set was a simplistic scaffold frame, but it was utilised in a number of creative and clever ways, I especially like the creation of the lions and when it became Despair’s den. Projection was used to highlight a few scenes but I liked the fact it was about the actors and the story, not special effects.

Now as you can see I enjoyed the acting, setting and I think the adaptors have done a splendid job in adapting this large piece of old literature. BUT, I have to say I have reservations about the story; I really think it has dated. It lacks any form of subtlety, the characters are all called after the rather one-dimensional stereotypes they are, Christian, Despair, Hopeful, Faithful, Silver-Tongue etc. and the adding of Atheist and Junkie I felt didn’t help to make it more contemporary, rather those characters appeared incongruous to the whole piece. To even call it an allegory I think is a mistake as there is nothing hidden or symbolic.

In a world where we are accustomed to C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien and their subtle allegories, I think Pilgrim’s Progress doesn’t stand up too well. As a plot it is also blindingly obvious that he’ll get to the Golden City and when we are told at the close of act 2 that Christian or Faithful will die in Vanity Fair, it is no surprise to find out it’s Faithful a few minutes later.

I also wonder how someone with no Christian background would find this story? I honestly think it only makes sense to those with some Christian (and specifically Protestant) background.

So I’m glad I went, it made me look back at a tale I knew from a long time ago and it rekindled a sense of the journey we all take in life, I could certainly recognise characters and situations that resonated for me. The cast were great and I think the adaptors have done a very good job. (I suggest they publish their version as I’m sure lots of religious school groups would like to put this version on), but I think the problem lies with Bunyan and even then it’s not his fault that a tale he wrote 300 years ago doesn’t resonate much anymore, as Christian allegory has moved on, as has the world in general.

STARS : * * * (and a half)

More on Method Acting and A New Series About Drama Schools

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I’d not seen this until today, but it tickled me, especially the “This is not Shakespeare” line  :

 

I’m also looking forward to this :

Drama schools are inherently funny places, full of interesting characters, so I’m sure this’ll be a fun series and I may well recognise some of my tutors in the characterisations.

Carousel – Opera North at the London Barbican Theatre

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After my taster last week, I got to see the full production of Opera North’s version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. As I mentioned in that post, I knew several of the tunes but had never seen the show or the film version. Was it to be a musical that should be consigned as a period piece or would it still be relevant to the 21st Century?

Having done some research prior to seeing the show, my interest was piqued by other critics and writers saying how they felt this was an opera rather than a musical. I was also intrigued as several friends had rather disparaging remarks to make about the show in the versions they’ve seen over the years. Would I be enamoured, pleased to have seen it but not crazy about it, or regretting I’d made the journey to the Barbican?

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia were in the orchestra pit accompanying and their exquisite playing set the scene as it starts with a wonderful balletic opening where we are introduced to the world of Carousel and its protagonist Billy Bigelow. The eponymous carousel is cleverly created before us and this spectacular opening captivated me into this world.

The Cleverly Created Carousel

This show also has another “wow factor” and that’s the size of the cast, it is huge! I really felt Opera North were pulling out all the stops to make this production feel definitive. It certainly helps to create the operatic feel to the piece.

Michael Todd Simpson was Billy Bigelow and he really gave this character light and darkness. I’m still not sure what to make of this character, is he just a thug, or is he a product of his circumstances? His journey to redemption is certainly bumpy and laden with pitfalls. Is the physical violence he issues an allegory for the way we often inflict hurt on those we love the most? I felt he was portrayed as a broken man and felt sympathy for him, despite his foolish actions. Rarely does a musical or opera get me pondering and thinking about it as much as this has. The domestic violence is not a comfortable issue to be confronted with.

Katherine Manley as his long-suffering wife Julie gave her character an inner resolve and strength which I think complemented Billy’s aggression. Hers is a tragic character but I never sensed hopelessness in her.

Sarah Tynan gave an uplifting performance as Carrie Pipperidge the friend and confidant of Julie and even though their lives go on different trajectories their friendship continues.

Joseph Shovelton was the comic relief in Enoch Snow, but again this character has hidden depths and is a necessary contrast to Billy.

Their voices were superb and it was lovely to hear a cast fill the theatre with no need for amplification.

Act 2 contains a beautiful ballet piece stunningly performed by Beverly Grant and Simon Jaymes.

So as you may well ascertain, I loved it. I really think it does deserve the title of “classic”, I found the story dramatically engaging, the score is beautiful and the way it combines, opera, ballet and musical theatre really makes it a special production.

It’s best known for the anthemic song You’ll Never Walk Alone, and obviously that song has much emotional baggage for many, but as the cast sing it at the end, I couldn’t help but get an emotional tingle down my spine as it brings this story to its conclusion. It was one of those moments in theatre that I know I’ll remember for a long time.

It’s only on for a short run in London, again we’re being shown that London is not the only place where theatre is creatively being made in the UK. If you’ve never seen Carousel, go and catch this production, the director Jo Davies is to be congratulated as I can’t imagine it being done any better.

STARS : * * * *

Backstage at the Barbican

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The Barbican, in The City of London, serves as a reminder of how it wasn’t just the Soviets that built concrete monstrosities during the Cold War. Each time I revisit it though I grow a bit fonder of it. However what happens inside is more important and it is a major location artistically in the Capital.

An added bonus is all the Jame Bond memorabilia that is inside at the moment, due to the Designing 007, Fifty Years of Bond Style exhibition that is taking place there at the moment. I’ll certainly try to head back to catch that (it’s on until 5th Sept) and partake of a Vodka Martini, shaken not stirred in the Martini Bar there too.

Knew I’d left my car somewhere, glad Mi6 have their top man looking after it for me.

Last night however I got to go behind the scenes of the Barbican theatre, seeing the props and set and then I sat back and saw the cast rehearse Opera North’s production of Carousel ahead of it opening next week on the 15th August. The cast involves children and so this adds the complication of having two sets of children (as there are limits as to how long children can work), so everything has to be rehearsed at least twice with each set of the children. I love seeing all the elements and people who make a show come together, so it was terrific to see the vast number involved in this piece beavering away.

Opera North’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel
Gillene Herbert as Julie Jordan (right)
Conductor James Holmes, Director Jo Davies, Set and Costume Designer Anthony Ward, Lighting Designer Bruno Poet, Choreographer Kay Shepherd, Choreographer (ballet) Kim Brandstrup, Video Designer Andrzej Goulding.
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

This production of Carousel has received rave reviews and I was given a great taste of the opening of Act 2 last night. I know a few of the songs of Carousel but I’ve never actually seen it either at the theatre or its film incarnation. So I’m genuinely excited about finally getting to see this classic and on deciding whether I feel it deserves that moniker.

I also got to meet Joe Shovelton who plays Enoch and Tim Burke who is the chorus master. They clearly have a passion for this production and were pleased to be brining it to the capital. It will be interesting to see how it is received by the Barbican audiences.

My review will be published after seeing the full show next week.

16 Ways To Go To The Theatre And Not Pay Full Price

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Theatre can be an expensive hobby. Just the other week the average West End theatre ticket was confirmed to be £47. With the average price paid for a ticket being £37.97

I go on average once a week and I’ve found various ways that I regularly use to make sure I can get good tickets but at cheaper prices. So what is my average ticket price? I dug out my tickets and calculator and over the first 6 months of this year my average was £19.20. admittedly not all of the shows I see are West End but a large proportion are, probably 70% of theatre I see is in West End/National Theatre or Royal Court.

Here’s how I achieve this :

1) If you’re in London go to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square, this is the official half price ticket booth and offers tickets for most of the West End shows. It has a website too that you can reference prior to coming into London. I primarily use this as my source for tickets. They have also recently started a loyalty card where you get £3 off once you’ve bought 6 tickets. You can book tickets not just on the day but up to 7 days in advance. I wrote a post on TKTS recently and it can be read here.

For great value tickets for West End shows, head here.

2) Visit the National Theatre’s Travelex SeasonThe National Theatre is I think the best theatre in the world. They have several productions a year which are part of the Travelex season. For this you can get tickets for £12 in good seats. This is a bargain and a great way to see world-class theatre for a brilliant price. This year in the Travelex scheme are, Antigone, Timon of Athens, London Road. I honestly think this is the best value theatre ticket available.

3) This is perhaps a cheeky tip but here it is nonetheless – DO NOT BUY from http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk they charge exorbitant “booking fees” PER TICKET. In fact their booking fees can sometimes equal the total ticket price of other shows!

Avoid like the proverbial plague

4) Visit your local amateur theatre. I can hear the gasps now “oh no, not am dram”, but take my word for it, you may be pleasantly surprised. A friend of mine took my tip and saw his local amateur theatre group and now goes regularly to see them, he felt the standard was better than some pros he’s seen. Many people involved in amateur theatres are professionally trained but for numerous reasons (often not because they failed as pros I hasten to add), they perform as amateurs. For example the amateur theatre I’m involved in The Miller Centre Theatre at every level has professionally trained people involved in its productions. The Little Theatre Guild website will point you in the right direction for one near you. Ticket prices are a bargain (£5 – £15 typically), and you’ll see a wide range of theatre too, yes, some will do the classics but some do more modern works, The Archway Theatre in Horely I saw do Patrick Marber’s Closer and will be doing Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in September. So check out your local group, you may be surprised!

5)  Get on mailing lists. Most theatres have an email list, get on it, because they often email those on it with very good deals. Time Out have an email list and I’ve used offers they’ve had on a few occasions too.

6) Check the Evening Standard newspaper (if you’re in London) as it frequently has offers in it. It’s a free paper and so it’s a no brainer to flick through and see if they have any offers.

7) Get on Twitter. I was a late comer to Twitter, only joining a few months ago, (@theatrethought if you want to add me)  and I have to say I wish I’d joined it earlier as there are deals flying about all over it. Facebook is similar but I’ve found Twitter to have more on it. @tkts, @bargaintheatre, @theatre_direct, @cheaptheatretix are all ones either I’ve got a bargain from or know friends that have.

8) Become a “Friend” or patron of a theatre/theatre company. Often theatres and theatre companies give a discount to those that support them. obviously there is an outlay of cost but it can work out more cost-effective. I was a Friend of the Royal Court, this meant I paid them £25 a year and I then got advance booking on their coming season. This meant I could book tickets to a Monday night showing for all their season and pay only £10 a ticket. (the Monday nights sell out notoriously fast due to all seats being £10) This was a great way of seeing their entire season at a very reasonable cost. I’ve not renewed this as I’ve not go the capacity to see all their productions over the next 6-9 months. I’ll certainly renew it in the future though. Check out what your local (or favourite) theatres offer.

9) Ask for Theatre Tokens for your birthdays and Christmas etc. This is an easy gift for people to get me, I can then pool them together and then for shows I can’t get a discount for I can either use them towards the cost or pay for the entire show. I used my Xmas vouchers to pay for Top Hat’s opening night earlier this year. Good news is that the TKTS booth also accept these so in previous years, I’ve got several shows out of the tokens given to me over one birthday.

These make the best present for me.

10) Go to previews. Preview tickets can sometimes be a good way to see a show but at a reduction. Sometimes it is a risk because a preview can mean the show is still a bit ropey or needs work, but I’ve seen a lot of previews and have to say usually they’re pretty slick. I got preview tickets to see Betty Blue Eyes for only £10 last year.

11) Sit in the balcony. This can be a gamble but it can also really pay off. Firstly quite a few of theatres balconies don’t have a too bad view. I saw Love Never Dies from the back row of the Adelphi’s balcony and thought the view was great. I do take a pair of binoculars when in the balcony, as it’s nice to be able to “zoom” in if I need to, but often I don’t use them. One balcony to avoid is the Palace Theatre in West End it’s AWFUL. Often if you book a midweek performance in a balcony they’ll shut the balcony and you get an upgrade to Circle or Stalls. I had this only the other week, you can’t guarantee it, but it’s nice when it happens. some theatres have standing areas this may well also be worth doing if you’re fit and healthy. Sites like http://www.theatremonkey.com and http://www.seatplan.co.uk can give you some tips and people’s experiences of where they’ve sat. Also check out my Seats Where I’ve Sat page, this is populated after every production I see.

12) Shop around. It’s surprising what deals can be found online. http://www.discounttheatre.com is a site I’ve used regularly. (they also have 48hr sales that can be a real bargain too). Shows in London are another site that offer good deals on some shows.

13) Go to the box office direct. This way you don’t pay a booking fee and I’ve occasionally got deals or upgrades on seats by using the box office in person.

14) See if the theatre offers discounts on multiple buys. When I lived in Bath the Theatre Royal there did a deal where the more tickets you bought the greater discount you got. I remember spending about £400 in one shot (yikes), but that gave me about  25% discount on each ticket. It also set me up with lots of trips over the coming year. If memory serves me right I think it meant I could see almost all of their season.

15) Try out Fringe theatres. You can often see intimate and exciting productions in the fringe venues. I’m off to Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Northgate in a couple of weeks to catch Volpone for example. Ticket price = £12.

16) Get a group together. Most theatres offer significant discounts if groups of 10+ go. If lots of your friends want to see the same show, go as a group.

As I discover/use more I’ll add them to this list, if you have any others please add a comment and I’ll add it to the list.

Happy bargain ticket hunting!