“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” As it was in 1859 when Charles Dickens had his A Tale of Two Cities published, as it was in 2016. I am somewhat removed from general news and current affairs more than I ever was, mostly because my theatre reviewing schedule this year went through the roof – I missed this year’s BT Christmas Concert at the Royal Albert Hall to attend the press night of the ‘20th anniversary’ UK tour production of Rent, and in that same week, my plans to attend Handel’s Messiah¸ again at the Royal Albert Hall, were postponed once more, for something that could not have been more different: Cinderella at the London Palladium. And there’s all the background reading I often like to do, and more often than not fail to do.
At a personal level, parts of 2016 were rotten. I had a terrible experience at the hands of the NHS at St George’s Hospital, where I was referred with a view to having a cataract taken out sooner rather than later. There’s little point, after all, in seeing shows if I can’t, um, see properly in the first place. Grumpy administrative staff as well as a terse and dismissive ‘senior staff nurse’. The latter wasted no time in accusing me of ignoring my own GP’s advice, quite a presumptuous remark to make, before telling me my scheduled surgery was postponed because my blood sugars were too high. Never mind that the blood sugars she demanded would have put me in a permanent state of hypoglycaemia. Without boring you with too many details, it would make people think I was drunk, when in fact my brain is buggered, because it relies mostly on glucose for fuel. But if it doesn’t have any glucose (sugar), because there isn’t any sugar inside me, I need to consume sugary foods – and quickly, otherwise I’d end up in a diabetic coma. Now, I realise there are all sorts of reasons why morale in the National Health Service is very low, but I don’t see why patients should be used as punchbags as a result of Jeremy ‘see you next Tuesday’ Hunt.
I lost the equivalent of a week off work – a couple of days in January and then three days in February, due to a chest infection, and had the most ghastly experience at the Nelson Health Centre, in Merton Park. I was seen by a registrar, who called my name out in the quietest voice imaginable, so I missed it the first time. Anyone would in a doctors’ waiting room with screaming babies, administrators on the phone sorting appointments out, and general conversational noise. Not only was this moron very rude, she was also incompetent. She couldn’t even examine the back of my mouth without calling for assistance, and insisted, when it came to printing out a prescription for me, that the printer was being slow. It was in fact turned off. Asserting I wasn’t breathing through my mouth, although I was, it was her colleague who checked me over very quickly, made a diagnosis and instructed this know-it-all who really knew nothing what I ought to be prescribed. The antibiotics worked eventually, but I got worse before I got better, and pulled out of reviewing a show. I am sorry to the actors in Poll Function, Jon Pascoe and Greg Shewring, for sitting in the front row (albeit on the instruction of the Pleasance Theatre staff) and coughing and spluttering my way through their press night. In hindsight I really should have had two nights off.
Having never applied for a mortgage before, I had no idea how convoluted the process was, and was ill-prepared for the amount of information I had to gather before being given the time of day. The managing director at my day job had been through the process himself more than once before, and thankfully had no hesitation, despite his workload, in filling in the forms the mortgage brokers wanted. The mortgage broker herself, however, didn’t take too kindly to me wanting to know exactly what was going on, and at one point screamed down the phone at me in response to me answering a question with a question. Hours later she was all sweetness and light all over again, and eventually I cleared my student loan and miscellaneous other outstanding balances, with money still left over.
This, then, is what I did with the rest of it. Returning to that blasted cataract, I joined the growing number of people who went private. I read a wonderful story about a man who went to France to have his cataract taken out, as the cost of the train fare and accommodation combined with the lower surgery fees there added up to less than the amount he’d have to fork out to have it done in Britain. For me, the difference in cost was so negligible – and, with the mortgage money having come through, I was able to settle the bill in full even before the surgery, so (as I recall) there was a bit of a cash discount in it for me – I had mine removed by Optical Express surgeons in their Westfield branch in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.
Some say that once you go private, that’s where you’ll stay. I agree up to a point. I am not usually able to secure appointments at my local clinic, even though they want me there every so often to whinge at me about how I’m not controlling my diabetes as well as I could, as their administrators seem to have a ‘computer says no’ mentality. Twice this year I’ve been to the London Doctors Clinic in Soho Square (which they call their Oxford Street branch), which charges £55 for an appointment, but at least you can get one, and they won’t cancel on you with little or no prior notice. The first time Dr Olivia Abrahim assured me that I hadn’t developed another chest infection, and all I needed to do was get some rest and allow myself to recover naturally. As this was Easter Saturday this was easily done. The second time Dr Tom Farmer and I discussed hyperhidrosis, for which Odaban spray (call it up on a search engine of your choice if you’re really that interested) was thought to have been the best product to deal with it. Seems to be working thus far.
In May, I enjoyed a performance of Sid The Play at Camden’s Etcetera Theatre. In a five-star review I noted “there’s something very lovable and charming about a day in the life of a punk lover who seems to have been born a generation too late.” A producer, Andrea Leoncini, who I am now privileged to call my friend, saw the show in very similar circumstances to my own. I was seeing another show at Etcetera one evening when I was invited to see Sid as well, and as there was no geographical inconvenience in seeing two shows in the same night, I agreed I would stay. I was pleased to be able to put some money behind their crowd-funder for a small tour, which resulted in seeing the show once more during its run at Above the Arts Theatre, just one minute from Leicester Square. Two if tourists get in the way a bit.
I was also interested in the cast recording of Before After, produced and composed by Stuart Matthew Price, with book and lyrics by Timothy Knapman. Not so much initially at what it was about (I hadn’t bothered reading too much about it before pledging my support) but at who they had brought on board for the recording. I’m not sure how well known Hadley Fraser and Caroline Sheen are outside the world of musical theatre, but not only are they amongst the best in the business, they’re both married to people amongst the best in the business, Rosalie Craig and Michael Jibson respectively. The story, as it turns out, is rather hard-hitting, and is one hell of an emotional rollercoaster. I accepted an invitation to a recording studio near Baker Street, and sat for far longer than was originally agreed enjoying this work in progress and understanding how a studio cast recording is even put together. A drinks reception and launch party went well, too – and if anyone is interested that doesn’t have a copy yet, more details can be found here: http://www.simgproductions.com/Records/Before_After.html
I would probably have a nervous breakdown if I even attempted compiling a list of people who died in 2016. There is a theory being bandied about, which probably has a modicum of truth in it, that the high number of deaths of people with public profiles this year is the natural progression of the pop music boom of the Sixties and the introduction of television in people’s front rooms in the Fifties. The number of recognised names is therefore much higher than it ever was, especially in our day, now that what constitutes a ‘celebrity’ has been somewhat widened thanks to reality shows and programmes like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘The X-Factor’. What we have seen in 2016, is apparently the new norm. It still doesn’t really explain why Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Victoria Wood, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Harper Lee and Ronnie Corbett – to name a small number – all passed on in the same year.
This year saw #Shakespeare400, and with it, a larger number of Bard plays than usual. Two, Love Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing are, at the time of writing, in rep at Theatre Royal Haymarket, having transferred over from Chichester Festival Theatre – it seems to be more of CFT’s own productions transfer to London than don’t. Flute Theatre’s 90-minute Hamlet is the best version I’ve seen, not only this year but ever, surpassing a bizarre one-man version which I saw at the Jack Studio Theatre, and A Tale of Sound and Fury at the Hope Theatre, for which I was one of the only reviewers not to go the full five-stars.
Some snobbishness still continues with regards to online reviews, as opposed to ones that appear in print newspapers. This is, however, the year in which producers and public relations firms properly wised up to so-called ‘bloggers’ and online reviewers and critics: I saw Guys and Dolls, Disney’s Aladdin, Mrs Henderson Presents, Nell Gwynn, School of Rock, Funny Girl (which I never would have paid to see, not at those prices, and certainly not having seen it already at Menier Chocolate Factory before its transfer to the Savoy Theatre), Dead Funny, School of Rock The Musical and An Inspector Calls, all press performances – just a few examples of West End shows seen during the year.
The profile of LondonTheatre1, who I write for, increased significantly during the year. At least two reviews were quoted in The Stage, one of which was Mary Nguyen’s ogling over Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, starring alongside Glenn Close in the English National Opera production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, at the London Coliseum. The other was one of mine, a rather rude (in hindsight) one-star dismissal of People, Places and Things, which everyone loved except, it would seem, me. I mentioned a slimmed-down Hamlet – a direct quote and star rating from when I saw it at the Park Theatre appeared on posters and on the front cover of the programme for their Trafalgar Studios run in December. I just happened to be listening to an edition of Elaine Paige on Sunday on BBC Radio 2, when the ever-popular broadcaster read out the opening paragraph of my press night review of Cameron Mackintosh’s new blockbuster Half A Sixpence. LondonTheatre1 was never credited, “simply an oversight”, according to the BBC, but it’s a sign that LT1 is moving onwards and upwards. The glorious Vanities The Musical played at Trafalgar Studios this year, which saw me quoted in an advert placed by the producers of that show in The Times.
If Half A Sixpence was the ‘best of times’ – I hope I wasn’t too pretentious in calling their leading man, Charlie Stemp, “a gloriously incomparable tour de force” – the latest touring production of Ghost The Musical was the ‘worst of times’. Sarah Harding performed disastrously at New Wimbledon Theatre. I mean, it really was terrible, and it was the only time I can ever remember people openly laughing at how bad it was. It was a surreal experience, that Friday night in early September, nobody failed to return at the interval (in my section, at least) and nobody did that thing they do at Sadler’s Wells where they storm out and slam the doors as they go, or the booing that still goes on at the opera. Harding’s acting was, as I said in a review posted on Facebook (LT1, alongside other reputable publications, has never been invited by Bill Kenwright Ltd to review the show at a press performance), “frigid and awkwardly wooden” and the stage looked like it was about to fall apart. The following night, I attended the last performance of Half A Sixpence at Chichester Festival Theatre. The difference could not have been starker – in every way.
The success of Half A Sixpence seems to have taken even its own creatives by surprise. Unsure how audiences would respond, no West End transfer was put in place even after a number of press night rave reviews, though the nightly standing ovations went on. In a London theatre Facebook group I help to run – not the biggest online parish but by no means the smallest, at more than 6,300 members – a number of posts went up as the summer went on, apologising for not being about a London show, before saying something along the lines of, ‘I’ve just come out of the Festival Theatre and seen the most amazing musical!’ At one point travel options and possible places to stay overnight were being discussed.
It was only in the last week of performances at Chichester that a London transfer was finally announced, and the ticket prices for the initial booking period were, unless you chose to sit upstairs, eye-wateringly high. Staff at the Festival Theatre themselves seemed surprised at that final Chichester performance by quite how many £125 premium seats there were (there aren’t nearly as many now, funnily enough) but nonetheless they were thrilled at the news. The London audience responses go on until now, particularly through social media, and it’s become a near-daily pleasure to scroll through and look at people’s comments about how impressed they were with the show. There are musical theatre students who say they have been inspired by the show, a few American visitors want it to come to Broadway eventually, and as I understand it, some fans of the show received an actual banjo for Christmas 2016. Whether they will learn to play them or not is another matter.
I went to the panto four times this year (two years ago, and for many years before that, I didn’t go to any), twice each to Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and the London Palladium. In the summer, Bromley Football Club hosted Les Mis FC v Phantom FC, fielding teams from the two longest-running musicals in the West End plus other guests and celebrities. In keeping with most of the people in the audience I had very little idea what was going on. Nor did I have any idea what was happening in Moby Dick The Musical, staged at the Union Theatre in October/November. ‘Bonkers!’ seemed to be the operative word.
The London Musical Theatre Orchestra (LMTO) put on two public concerts, State Fair, at Cadogan Hall, and A Christmas Carol, at the Lyceum Theatre, putting a full-sized orchestra on the London stage, a relatively rare sight in musical theatre these days. I even got to see the press performance of Carlos Acosta: The Classical Farewell at the Royal Albert Hall, celebrating one of the finest dancers of our generation, who will now progress to directing, choreographing and charitable works. All good things must come to an end, and I’ve no idea how long I’ll keep getting such good gigs on press comps, but for now I’m riding the wave, and taking the odd energy booster supplement as I go to keep myself going.
I don’t think there are too many five-star reviews being bandied about. I think this has just been a marvellous year for London theatre, and next year looks to continue this trend.
I wish you a very Happy New Year.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.