Ho hum, my last online theatre roundup was supposed to be my only article about online theatre. I was intending to get back to proper theatre by now. But with the lurgi refusing to make an exist without being as big of a pain in the arse as possible on its exit, I’m still on this.
A small list this time, and I’ve already caught up with most of the things I wanted to catch up on, but I have four things for you before we get back to normal service.
This one, I confess, should have been reviewed last time round, but I forgot. Better late than never, I hope.
Two years ago, Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew pulled one of theatre’s bigger surprises.* They had risen through the ranks of Northern Broadsides to produce their own plays in their own style to huge acclaim, and when long-standing Artistic Director Barrie Rutter left, Conrad Nelson became his interim replacement. I assumed he had the permanent post in the bag, but not only did he step down, he and his wife decided it was time for a change and left the company completely. Instead, they decided to put all their energy into what started off as their side-project: Claybody Theatre. Unlike the Broadsiders, this was a very local company producing plays of interest to Stoke-on-Trent. As a result, they have very much dropped out of the national spotlight. But not my spotlight, because I happen to have a sister who lives there.
*: At least surprising by pre-2020 standards of surprise.
With one of their first Claybody plays, Dirty Laundry, now made available as an audio play, I took the chance to see what they were up to. And if you’re a fan of their Broadsides work, the first thing than strikes you is what a different direction they’re going in; the second thing that may strike you is how much more specialist the appeal is. The target audience here is Stokies through and through, and more specifically, Stokies who know about the Six Towns’ long history with pottery. I’ve only recently learnt about it myself – and it’s fair to say that if you know nothing about Stoke or Pottery this story may not grab your attention – but I have learnt enough to appreciate how well McAndrew has done her homework here.
So, first, as catch-up for the Stoke-curious, there are three basic things to know about the Potteries: firstly, Stoke’s pottery industry was once an indispensable part of the industrial revolution (and is still a major player in the pottry industry); secondly, there is much pride in Stoke for their pottery heritage as the north-east has for mining; and thirdly, like mining, this sadly came at a high price to countless workers. An easy route would have been to portray the bosses as cold unfeeling capitalists; the counter-argument is that the bosses did care about safety but the realities of the day meant there was only so much he could do. The latter version is how Richard Warham would like to see it – set in the 1950s when the Clean Air Act comes into force, he’s moving with the times. However, there’s a big grey area: was this really the best he could have done, or was this just an excuse to go cheap on safety. With Nora’s father about to die of an industrial lung disease, an uncomfortable talk about the past is going to come to light.
Dirty Laundry suits an audio play well, but my only regret is not seeing the play the first time round. The original was set in the Spode works; partly using the works as they are, and partly recreating a living room of the time. I can visualise how effect that must have been. The overall message of the play – if it needs to have one – is to treat history the way it should be treated. In reality, doing the right thing and being pragmatic and acting in self-interest have a big overlap and it’s often hard to tell one from the other. You do no favours by dividing history into virtuous heroes and pantomime villains.
In Plain Sight
This isn’t strictly in my remit – this production is advertised as a film rather than a play – but with writer Sam Chittenden one of the most acclaimed artists of Brighton Fringe, as well as one of the most interesting writers in her style of understatement, I was keen to see what she has to offer Sweet Venues’ Femfest. Lately she’s done a lot of writing about forgotten women from history, sometimes fact-based and something supplementing the story with her imagination. This time round, it’s about Gwen Lally, in her day an acclaimed pageant maker whose fans included George Bernard Shaw, A. A. Milne and Virginia Woolfe, and it’s very heavily fact based – in fact, I get the impression that the entire script is comprised of real quotes, from Lally herself, and other words of others about her and in letters to her.
Gwen Lally was also noted for dressing in man’s clothes, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the title refers to her living a not-terribly-secret life as a lesbian. But, strangely enough, no-one seems certain whether this was the case. In spite of women in men’s clothes having been around since the days of the “gentleman entertainer”, it was not until later than society associated the dress style that way. Even with the life-long friendship with Mabel Gibson – whom Gwen often acted opposite, her playing the male parts – no-one seems certain what kind of relationship it was. Whatever the truth, it did not stop stop Viriginia Woolf claiming her as one of her own, and one of the letters in the film longs for the day when people like them are accepted.
In Plain Sight is created in partnership with Heifer Productions, who seem to have taken care of the production side. I’m not an expert in what standards to expect for filming, but it looked well done. I was particularly impressed with the make-up used, with the characters in the film all done up convincingly. There was one thing that struck me as looking a bit odd, which was all the male characters being played by women. This is not unusual in stage plays, especially those that rely on representation staging, but in a photorealistic film is some seem a bit strange when AA Milne is played by- … Oh, wait a second, I get it. This is a nod to Gwen Lally’s acting, isn’t it?
The snag with this film is that I feel it tells only half the story. I guess constructing an entire biopic from quotes, but the reason I can tell you co much about Lally’s career is that I looked it up on the English Heritage site (that’s a great source, give it a read). I had no idea there was a pageant craze in Edwardian times, but when you merely listen to Gwen Lally’s feelings on her own pageants, it doesn’t really convey what a big deal it was at the time. So, here’s my verdict: the film was a good start – indeed it was the only way to get started – by with stage plays shortly being on again, I think this is where Gwen’s story would be strongest. It will be a shame to lose the camera-work and make-up as great jobs were done on both, both I reckon the half-hour of quotes by and about Gwen we already have would do well to be supplemented by Chittenden’s own writing with some more leeway. With the world of pageants offering just as fascinating a story as Gwen Lally’s part in it, I’d really like to see what we could do with an hour.
Nonsense and Sensibility
The problem with online theatre – indeed, the reason why I haven’t watched much of it myself – is that most of the time it feels like a substitute. No matter how good your camera work and screen production skills are, there’s always a feeling of only being the next best thing be being there in person. Some groups forget about calling themselves theatre and instead call if film, but again, they’re up against people who do film all the time, and again there’s a feeling of next best thing. If you want to avoid the feeling of second best, you somehow need to make “online” a medium in its own right. And this is what Three’s Company have done. Their co-production with Anonymous Is A Woman was originally a conventional play, but if I didn’t know better, I would have said this play was specifically written to be performed on Zoom.
First, however, some background info; as always, if you are not familiar with the writings of Tom Crawshaw, this will take a bit of explaining. Most of Three’s Company’s plays have a very surrealistic kind of humour, and usually some sort of audience participation. The two big Edinburgh Fringe hits were: 2014’s Shakespeare for Breakfast, set on Shakespeare Island, there the Shakespeare goodies are uniting against the Shakespeare baddies for who takes control of the Complete Works of Shakespeare; and 2015’s Boris: World King where the nation’s then-favourite comedy politician put on his own show with hilarious scrapes (to which Crawshaw now observes: comedy is tragedy plus time; this is a rare example of the reverse). However, Crawshaw can go past the surrealism and write characters in more depth, and this Austen/dinosaur mash-up is the latest unlikely destination.
I missed the original stage version from 2016, so I’m not sure how that worked, but in this Zoom version there is a reading a newly-discovered Jane Austen texted. Uptight academic (and deathly-serious Austen fan) Emma has enlisted the help of her friend Harry to set up the Zoom call and read some of the parts. However, fun-loving over-enthusiastic Harry has chosen to enhance proceedings with what appears to be every novelty background and overlay available in Zoom. I confess, my literary knowledge of Jane Austen is sketchy, so I’m not sure how much this story is supposed to relate to its namesake Sense and Sensibility, nor do I know if there were any Austen in-jokes I met, but I can’t help noticing dinosaurs playing an increasing role in the story: first as our heroine meets a palaeontologist, and eventually featuring real-live dinosaurs in a plot increasingly resembling Jurassic Park. Oh, and did I mention there’s an escaped poisonous snake on the loose during this reading?
But the real story here is the unusual friendship friendship of Emma and Harry. Even if you lose the Austen plot in the first minute, the actual plot driver is the rising tension and bickering between the readers. (Me: “Wow, it’s just like a real script read-through.”) At various points they drop off the call into their own private chat, which of course doesn’t work and we hear everything they say. Ultimately, they are two opposites who drive each other up the wall but keep each other in check. There is plot element at the end that doesn’t really work if you think about it for more than two minutes (won’t say what as it’s a spoiler), but seeing as we’ve got Jurassic Chawton in this play I don’t think anyone’s going to mind.
I should acknowledge that I’m reviewing this from the perspective of someone who’s used to Three’s Company humour. The first time round, this was a big success at Buxton Fringe but had mixed reactions further afield – the difference, I suspect, being that the Buxton audience knowing better what to expect. If you haven’t seen any of their other work, you might not get this. But there’s little doubt for those who do – if you’re at home when Jack and Algergon are visited by a 23rd-century time-traveller, or the dodos in a Narnia-like land ask what sort of monsters would make their species on our world extinct, you won’t be disappointed.
Jesus Christ Superstar
I should state up-front that I’m not the most impartial person to be reviewing this – you don’t have to look far to know my feelings on organised religion. I’ve never forgiven the educational system for making my sit through happy-clappy hippy-Christian Godspell in school, and although I liked Joseph and his Amazing Techicolour Dreamcoat, it did not escape my attention this is quite favoured by churchy types to get small impressionable children to buy into this whole God thing because nice stories about dreams and magic babies can be followed up with the bit about homosexuality being icky. Another jazzed up Bible story didn’t really appeal to me.
But then I discovered Jesus Christ Superstar has an unusual list of fans ranging from Pope John Paul IV to … Tim Minchin? In fact, the world’s most outspoken atheist singer-songwriter – yes, this is the same Tim Minchin who did The Pope Song – is so much of a fan he asked Andrew Lloyd Webber if he could be in it. And he is, playing Judas. How is this possible? The answer, it would seem, is that this musical isn’t about Jesus being the Son of God. In fact, it is open to interpretation whether Jesus’s dad really is the big man upstairs, or simply something that he’s said so often he’s started to believe it himself. Rather, this is the story about Jesus the Firebrand – he is worshipped as the man who stands up to Rome first and a religious prophet a long way second. The Zealot song “I believe in you and God so tell me that I’m saved” would normally sound like a spiritual, but in this context, it’s a rallying cry for a man who gives them hope. Did he really perform miracles? Did he really rise from the dead? He doesn’t need to – the movement he has created is unstoppable with or without this.
The streamed version is the “Rock Arena tour”, because apparently this is the way Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted it to be done. This might look a bit funny when viewed through a TV screen, because frequently you see someone singing with the same person on the screen behind – but you need to remember that many of the people in a venue the size of the Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena will see little more than pinpricks on stage. The screen behind presents a mixture of live footage on stage and imagery of Biblical society transplanted to the modern day with the rallying hashtags of #RomeLies and #FollowThe12, which I think does the job well to cater for near audience, far audience, and remote audience. The leads in the cast are excellent: Tim Minchin as complicated right-hand man Judas and Mel C as Mary Magdalene are superb and you could imagine the parts were written for them; and Ben Forster, chosen by ITV show Superstar also does not disappoint. ITV scores zero points for originality by riding on the coat-tails of the equivalent BBC TV elimination shows, but I can’t argue with the result.
I’d like to close this review by congratulating Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice for managing to create a musical about a major religious event that appeals to both believers and non-believers – I’d like to, but I can’t. It’s not really my business to tell people of faith what they should and shouldn’t enjoy, but I’d have thought this was pretty easy to watch within a Christian interpretation – but no. When this first came out, the Christians (or at least the Christians who made the most noise) were furious. The music ends with Jesus’s death – it’s up to you to decide what happens next, but you’re welcome assume it follows up with the resurrection. Nope. Not good enough. Apparently, if you don’t include the following bit and allow people other than yourselves to come up with a different interpretation, that’s not acceptable. (The Vatican endorsed it eventually, but this unexpected attack of pragmatism only happens nearly 20 years later.) Right, fine. Don’t watch it then. See Godspell instead- … no, apparently that’s not acceptable either. Even though that was most definitely pro-Christian, that ends after the crucifixion too and that’s bad for some reason.
Ah well, nice try Lloyd-Webber and Rice. The moral of the story is there’s no pleasing some people. Other than that, job well done. That concludes this roundup of online theatre – and possibly concludes my online coverage for good.