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How can you do GCSE Drama without theatre?

This article in Standard Issue magazine has recently addressed the issue of GCSE Drama requirements being changed so that seeing live theatre is no longer a requirement for the syllabus.

I can just about understand how this allows schools in remote areas (where they perhaps don’t have easy access to theatres that we have in London and other large towns and cities) to add GCSE Drama to their syllabus. But I am deeply concerned that with funding cuts, it will be all too easy for schools to justify seeing live theatre as a frivolous expense. There is something about the ephemeral quality of theatre, the experience of something being created live in front of you, the acts of teamwork to make it run smoothly, that just don’t translate in quite the same way when watched on screen.

I have very much enjoyed the proliferation of NTLive screenings – they have allowed me to see productions such as The Audience and Frankenstein (which were way beyond my budget and/or sold out) – I can hear the words and sound effects, see the set and movements, but I cannot feel the atmosphere. It is that atmosphere which is so crucial for young minds to fall in love with theatre. To feel a soundtrack pulsate through your body, to have that connection with the performers on stage. By watching this on a screen, you are somewhat dissociated from the action.

It’s painting by numbers, experiencing things second hand; it’s tantamount to watching your chemistry teacher do all the cool stuff with a bunsen burner, it’s seeing someone else’s samples from a geography field trip, it’s regurgitating someone else’s mathematical proof rather than learning to understand it yourself. Sure it helps, but it’s no substitute for doing it yourself.

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Here are my list of my favourite theatrical memories which just couldn’t have been achieved by watching it on a screen:

Kenneth Branagh throwing a handful of snow over my head as he walked through the auditorium in The Winter’s Tale. (Having worked for 9 years in retail, I have a hard time getting excited about Christmas until December – and here I was, feeling all twinkly and festive, IN OCTOBER).

Cackling a bit too loudly at theatre joke in The Little Dog Laughed, and Tamsin Grieg making direct eye contact with me and a grin and twitch of the eyebrows that said: “you’ve had this happen, haven’t you?”

Having the bejaysus scared out of me in Ghost Stories and wondering who in the auditorium was screaming (only to realise it was me).

Seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preview, (before the luminous turquoise clunky jerky telephone box was deemed safe for use), with a non-existent invisible Great Glass Elevator, and Willy Wonka and Charlie sat on the floor in the cavernous expanse of a starlit stage. “Come with me, and you’ll see, a world of pure imagination…” was proper spine-tingling stuff, a piece of understated theatrical magic.

The pre-show for Measure For Measure in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and one of the male actors propping his elbow on my shoulder and asking suggestively: “So… are you working tonight?”

Sitting in the back of a car for This Time Tomorrow at Edinburgh Fringe 2015, in one of the greatest exercises of theatrical intimacy I’ve ever witnessed.

The abundance of theatrical electricity in the auditorium for In The Heights during “Carnaval del Barrio”.

The thundering of tap shoes in Thoroughly Modern Millie rippling through my seat in the tiny Landor Theatre.

The noise and smell of battle in both Titus Andronicus and Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Getting splashed in a glorious finale of Singin’ In The Rain.

Being addressed directly by both actors in Lampedusa at Soho Theatre.

Having to resist the urge to run onto the stage in War Horse and make them give poor, exhausted Topthorn a break.

Punchdrunk, generally.

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People, Places and Things – Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s only April and I think I’ve already found my favourite play of 2016. Technically I found it in March, but it was so good I had to see it a second time. It’s intense, funny, traumatic, beautiful, terrifying, poignant and inspiring – and Denise Gough has more than earned the accolade of Best Actress in the 2016 Olivier Awards.

People, Places and Things takes us into the messy world of rehab, as Emma (Denise Gough), and a selection of other recovering addicts, work through the minefield of physical withdrawl, and the subsequent therapy sessions as they battle the psychological demons which always lead them back to substance abuse: the people, places and things they associate with using.

Denise Gough is absolutely magnetic as Emma: from the minute she ricochets into reception, high as a kite, slurring expletives into her phone, and expecting a quick fix to her problems, she invites us into the unfiltered wreckage of “I can quit anytime I like.” She’s an almost permanent fixture on stage in a role which seems equally draining and exhilarating, and Duncan Macmillan’s perspicacious writing more than passes the Bechdel Test. (Take note, playwrights: THIS is how you write good roles for women).

Bunny Christie has created yet another stunning and versatile set – staged in traverse with some audience seated on the stage, the tiled walls feel very clinical, compounded by the hallucinatory graphics as they start to crack and float away during certain scenes. Backed up by a pounding soundtrack from Matthew Herbert, stunning sound design by Tom Gibbons, and vivid lighting by James Farncombe – this is every bit another success by Headlong, to rival their previous work on 1984 and The Nether.

 

PEOPLE PLACES AND THINGS

Photo by Johan Persson

She is backed up by a tight ensemble cast who play roles including medical staff and fellow service users in various stages of recovery (and relapse). The lucid scenes of withdrawl with multiple Emmas staggering, pacing and twitching about the stage are quietly harrowing. Barbara Marten plays a selection of calm and withering professionals who, according to Emma, “look just like my mother”. Her offbeat sense of humour helps to temper some of the seriousness of the situation, offering Emma a ‘stool sample to eat’, before joyfully announcing “it’s FALAFEL!” But her appearance in the final scene adds a real thump of poignancy, showing us the enormity of Emma’s wayward past.

Jeremy Herrin’s directing helps us to navigate through a potentially confusing narrative of the things that Emma perceives, both real and imaginary. The group therapy sessions present snapshots of the lives of other addicts, the familiar patterns of behaviour, and Emma’s reluctance to engage with the process. Gough delivers several monologues with real punch: how exactly are you supposed to live sober when the world around you is so screwed, that drink and drugs are the only things that make it tolerable? But towards the end, we are all rewarded with the fruits of her hard work and honesty, as she practises her apology to her parents – a tender and moving piece of vulnerability.

Theatre is my addiction. And I am craving another hit of People, Places and Things.

A HUGE thank you to Seat Plan for the tickets!

‘People, Places and Things’ is playing until Saturday 18th June 2016 at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DA. Contains strong language, strobe-like lighting effects and short complete blackouts in the auditorium. Suitable for ages 15+. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.peopleplacesthingsonstage.com/ 

Why the fascination with WW1?

“The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ’cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

This quote from The History Boys by Alan Bennett has been playing on my mind for the last couple of days.  What is it about the First World War that we are all so obsessed with?  Why that war in particular and not any other?  There’s nothing quite like a centenary to focus the mind and cause an outpouring on the artistic front, to indulge the nationwide WW1 fever.  (This probably all sounds terribly cynical – it isn’t).

I too have been swept along in this inexplicable need for commemoration.  I went to see the poppies at the Tower of London and was stunned at the sheer scale of it. Even looking at it, 888,246 is still a difficult number to get your head around.  Back in January we were putting together a season of plays for my theatre, with the intention of including one WW1-related play every year for 4 years.  We had one we liked, but then suddenly Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff came available for amateur rights (thank you people of Samuel French London!) a powerful, moving drama full of well-drawn characters.  It opened our season in September – at the end, some people were reportedly coming out of the auditorium in tears.  It broke my heart as I took show photos, then it broke me again as I painstakingly picked through pictures trying to choose a few for front of house and the website.  But it seems we’re not the only theatre with this idea: I’ve seen posters for everything from The Accrington Pals to My Boy Jack to Birdsong.  War Horse has been running in London almost constantly since 2007.  If audience numbers are anything to go by, we’re not bored of war yet – far from it.

Our recent production of R. C. Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’

So are theatres fuelling this desire for stories of war and tragic loss, or simply responding to a demand for it?  Are theatre, TV and film responsible for this warped image we have that WW1 was 4 years of relentless day-and-night bombardment, whilst the truth is that there were a lot of gaps in between, that frequent rotations meant that soldiers spent very little time at the front line?  It’s easy to think that the death toll accounts for a much higher percentage of the total fighting force than it actually does.  It beggars belief that it’s as low as 10% (and that 7.8 million men lived to tell the tale).  What is it about the Western Front that has inspired so many plays as opposed to other theatres of war during WW1?  My great-grandfather served in Palestine for his part.  With a few stats, it appears that at any one time, 46% of soldiers were serving away from France and Flanders in places like Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Gallipoli.  Where are those plays?

But I suspect the theatre’s love affair with the Western Front endures for several reasons.  For the fact that it was so geographically close, that it was meant to be over so quickly, that it quickly fell into stalemate, that mass conscription meant that almost everyone can count a relative within a few generations who served.  That the roots of so many modern conflicts that dominate the news today have their roots in the clumsy decisions made at the end of the war.  But amongst other things, it’s a very basic human desire to understand.  To know why so many died, to ask whether it could’ve been different.  Or possibly, to be horrified.  To reinforce our view that so many men who went to fight for King and country died for no gain whatsoever.  Because it’s easier to shake our heads at futility than to say that the outcome of the war (which inevitably led to WW2) was worth that unprecedented scale of bloodshed.

In Doctor Scroggy’s War, recently on at Shakespeare’s Globe, it focuses briefly on the Battle of Loos and the use of poison gas; the strategy of which was pinned on the availability and position of French troops rather than the weather.  In spite of the forecast indicating that wind direction would cause the gas would blow back onto their own troops, the operation went ahead.  Generals were adamant that it was too late to call off the attack, even though they knew that they were condemning untold numbers of men to certain death.  In the places where soldiers were able to make a breakthrough, reinforcements were too far away to be of any use, or sent on their way too late so that when they arrived at the front line, they were exhausted and in no fit state to bolster momentum.  Any ground gained was soon lost – within a matter of weeks, positions reverted to as they had been before and almost 60,000 men had been killed or wounded.  It is said of Loos that the tragedy is not in the failure, but in how close they came to succeeding, if only the back up had been ready and waiting.

888,246 is not a number we should ever be comfortable with.  Art in its various guises, whether it’s a moatful of ceramic poppies, a play or a TV dramatisation, routinely keeps that wound open and serves to remind us of a war fought with so little consideration for human life.

Lest we forget indeed.

#LDNTheatreBloggers at Soho Grind

“Crema crema crema chameleon….”

This was the terrible brilliant coffee-based pun we named our concoction in the Espresso Martini Challenge at Soho Grind – it sounded better than it tasted.  Out of our team of six, 2 of us couldn’t drink alcohol and another didn’t like coffee – but as an ex-barista, I liked to think I’d learnt enough about coffee to be able to match some flavours.  Matching is one thing, but ratios is another.  Our heavy-handed slugs of almond syrup and agave nectar made for a rather saccharine-yet-bitter concoction – but the name did win us a big bag of roasted coffee beans (which is great – but I now need the equipment to turn this into cups of coffee – anyone got a Gaggia?).

This was my first introduction to a night out with the #LDNTheatreBloggers hosted by the wonderful people at Official Theatre and Seat Plan – there are worse ways to spend a Monday night than making and drinking cocktails with other people who love the theatre as much as I do.

Espresso Martinis – photo lovingly stolen from Official Theatre

Soho Grind did also whip up some delicious mocktails for us tee-totallers – I have no idea what it was called, but asking for ‘the ginger thing – again’ at the bar got the desired effect.  The long list of ingredients (or the ones I can remember) included rhubarb and ginger jam, some sort of syrup with cayenne pepper, apple and pear juice, basil, soda water – and probably other things too.  A nice change given that I’m bored to death of drinking coke and orange juice.  The entertainment was also topped off with music from singer songwriter Bity Booker – a voice vaguely reminiscent of Cerys Matthews, balancing soft, haunting melodies with a really powerful set of lungs.

As a complete newbie to the group, I was made to feel very welcome by Rebecca (OT head honcho) and was quickly introduced to lots of people.  It was a great chance to compare shows with others and get a few recommendations.  Far from being the cliched “networking event” it could’ve been, this was a bunch of like-minded people all together in one place, all excitedly chatting about theatre without the fear that you’re boring anyone who isn’t quite so obsessed with it.  Given that I review for my blog and Bargain Theatre, I’ve now got a little group of people who’ll probably be there on press night (for other blogs and publications), so a few friendly faces to join at the interval, or even to join me when I have a second ticket.

We also got to find out a bit more about Seat Plan – a new website which I can see becoming invaluable in years to come.  They’re calling on all theatre-goers – regular and occasional – to review the seats they sit in whenever they go to the theatre.  The legroom, the view – anything you can say about that particular seat.  Because some seats are listed as restricted view (when they’re not really) and others aren’t listed as RV (when they really should be).  Legroom is very variable from row to row and theatre to theatre.  Often the grid of squares doesn’t really indicate the curvature of the sides, how far back you’ll actually be, or just how vertigo-inducingly steep the rake is.  There isn’t the option to pop into the auditorium to have a look at the seats before parting with money – and for some shows, even the cheapest seats cost a pretty penny.  The more detail people can pool into this website, the better informed everyone can be when booking tickets for any given West End theatre.  Because everyone wants to get the best seat they can afford, whatever their budget.

There’s only one thing I want to know – when can we do this again?