This week, people are all of aflutter over the new National Theatre season – and there’s plenty of stuff there to be joyful about. Imelda Staunton in Sondheim’s Follies definitely got my pulse racing, as did the prospect of Lost Without Words, a collaboration with Improbable that’s improvised by actors in their seventies and eighties, as well as transfers for two of my favourite shows of the Edinburgh Fringe: Us/Them (Exeunt review here) and rapid-fire rave spoken word performance Dublin Old School, which was so very much better than that description makes it sound. But I found my eyes skipping past the line-up of Olivier shows, there’s something a bit worthy, a bit stodgy about it: like new Biblical epic Salome or industrial revolution saga Common.
But then again, when you’ve got a space as cavernous as Wookie Hole to work with maybe it cries out to be filled with Big Ideas and Historical Incident. A series of trips to Shoreditch Town Hall has got me thinking about the distinct challenges huge spaces bring: they might be a step up for artists, but they’re often a step down for audiences. The Shoreditch arts venue has recently sprung into action with a really strong line-up of live art – stuff you wish you’d caught at Edinburgh, things stopping in on regional tours, and intriguing international collaborations like next week’s Phone Home. I want to love it. But something about its grand rooms muffles even the loudest artists, and maroons set designs in a pool of light in a vast, Victorian wedding cake of a space. It seems to have a never-ending supply of rooms. But one properly kitted out, intimate black box studio with raked seating would do so much more for artists and audiences than an endless stream of more commercially viable ‘event spaces’, however pretty they are.
In the best possible example of journalists-talking-about-journalism, the Guardian ran ‘Flattened by the cocaine panzers’ – the toxic legacy of Oasis’s Be Here Now a piece exploring how music reviewers went screaming wild for Oasis’s new album, then had to suffer a deeply painful morning-after of embarrassment and regret. The piece’s author got some appealingly candid explanations from the journalists it interviewed: they admitted to not having enough time to consider it properly, to not wanting to miss out on the next big thing, to having a political and emotional need to champion a working class band. These are all reasons I recognise.
The Oasis article makes a nice point of comparison with the rather less measured uproar Broadway critics, who had the luxury of their usual special preview performance removed as part of a marketing gimmick for tabloid war comedy Front Page, and had to file a same-night review in the same way that London critics do. You can’t separate criticism from the conditions it’s produced under: overnight reviews are forced to be punchy, the product of a few moments’ decision about whether to pan or rave. Exeunt deliberately gives its writers freedom to take more time, but we lose out on readership figures by doing so: the first reviews to come out appear higher in Google rankings, and inevitably get shared and discussed more widely. Embargoes might be part of the clanking old machinery of traditional print media – but ironically, they’d let an experimental online-only publication like us be both freer, and louder.
It feels a bit like the collective London theatre world is taking a deep breath in before it blows us away with next month’s glittery collection of festive extravaganzas. Cue some heavyweight openings: OIL at the Almeida, Red Barn at the NT, The Mountaintop at the Young Vic. But away from the big venues Dance Umbrella and And What? Queer Arts Festival continue to be full of good things – both are on until the end of October. On Thursday, Bobby Baker is hosting a marvellous sounding free night of performance and art, the Roving Diagnostic Unit Late Spectacular, which includes a new performance from Baker that gives America’s Next Top Model a live art makeover. And Muhammad Ali and Me at the Albany is a story of a young black lesbian growing up in the 1970s, finding solace in boxing – and it’s BSL interpreted throughout. Excellent.
A smattering of other things I spotted: Gloucester’s Strike a Light Festival has a joyful line-up of performance including Rhiannon Armstrong doing “the performance art version of Handy Andy”, E15 by LUNG (Exeunt review here), and Kid Carpet’s rock extravaganza for the under-8s. Home Manchester is hosting Sleepwalk Collective’s Domestica this weekend, a nightmarish riff on the Western canon that replaces centuries of blandly smiling sirens and virgins with something rather darker. And if you act fast you can still get tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire, with Maxine Peake playing an improbable but apparently incredible Blanche Dubois. Freedom Studios Bradford is staging the intriguing-looking North Country, directed by co-AD (and Exeunt contributor) Alex Chisholm – it’s a story of three teenagers struggling to survive, post-apocalypse, and it’ll happen in The Wild Woods, a wonderful looking pop-up community arts space – with trees. The Weir is one of my favourite ever plays, and Rachel O’Riordan’s version is by all accounts a brilliant one. It’s on at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre for another 10 days – with Irish stew served before performances! – before transferring to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in November.
And in Scotland, Luminate Festival is on until the end of the month. It’s a multi-arts celebration of older people’s work – which feels vital, at a time when every third arts opportunity seems to be earmarked for under-25s, and new and young are bandied about as though they’re synonymous, and interchangeable. There’s a full line-up of shows by older people including the wondrous Pat Kinevane, as well as dance events, talks, and a play-in-a-day workshop.Dive – who I’ve only encountered through their messy queer cabaret nights at Summerhall – are hosting an intergenerational evening of performance with appearances from Jo Clifford and Tom Marshman. There’s a series of dementia-friendly performances, too (which tugged at my heart, a bit, as I remembered my theatre-loving Grandpa’s illness becoming incompatible with long performances and crowded foyers). Sometimes people grumble about greying audiences as a sign of theatre being moribund, somehow – this festival is a welcome reminder that participation is a thing to be celebrated, at every age.
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