Tag Archives: National Theatre

Opinion: See the Best Theatre in London (Members Only)

Pay up, pay up, for the greatest show in London!

Pay up, pay up! For the greatest show in London!

Benedict Cumberbatch has sold out. I’m not talking artistically; I’m talking about the fact that, in less than a day, the Barbican’s production of Hamlet has been absolutely booked-up. Tickets to see Cumberbatch’s last London foray at the National Theatre in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein were also rather difficult to get hold of. But the story of tickets selling quicker than a flash of summer lightning is not a new one. Gillian Anderson is also currently cramming in the punters at the Young Vic, contributing to what has been the fastest selling show in London’s theatre history, David Tennant caused a booking frenzy when he visited the capital with his interpretation of Hamlet, and James McAvoy in Macbeth meant you had to possibly commit regicide yourself to get in on the show.

So how does one go about procuring some of London’s hottest tickets? The answer: pay up!

Friends With Benefits

Many theatres have membership schemes. These are where you make a yearly “gift” to get a certain amount of extras as a thank you for financially supporting the venue. The most valuable of these benefits is priority booking. This is when these exclusive members get the chance to book seats before the rest of the plebs fight it out.

And it’s not just theatre that offer this priority perk either. The British Film Institute (BFI) also has a membership scheme which really comes into its own for the London Film and Flare (formerly London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) festivals, where being a member is really the only way you’ll be a good shot at tickets for almost all their showings. Even mobile carrier O2 offers priority ticket allocations for its customers for events at its music/entertainment venues, meaning free mobile-to-mobile calls between pretty much everyone at Kate Bush’s upcoming tour.

A Costly Relationship

So if you really want to be sure to get tickets, committing yourself to a theatre is probably the best way to go. But how much will it cost you?

Well, that really depends on the theatre and how good a “friend” you want to be. The National Theatre has the cheapest basic membership that offers priority booking, at a mere £15 per year. But then, membership fees for higher tiers and other theatres can go for £100 or more. More philanthropic members of the public can even purchase packages for up to £50,000 (Almeida)!

But it’s worth it to be able to get those hot “tiks”, right?

“La membri teatro è mobile!”

Membership only gives you a better chance of getting seats by offering this priority period. Despite being part of an exclusive crowd that has first dibs, there are still stories of members having to fight for tickets among themselves, with servers and booking lines become so overload that they go down even when it’s just the presumably exclusive few who are able to book. Members who have been unable to get tickets during these priority periods, due to the theatre or member priority allocation selling out, then have battle it out with the rest of the public during the general booking period: sometimes ending up with no tickets at all.

Therefore, some theatres, like the Barbican, Donmar Warehouse, and Old Vic, have extra priority booking periods for members who are able to buy into a higher tier of membership, from £65 (Old Vic) upwards to £350 (Donmar Warehouse). So if you really want to get those seats, you’re looking at paying an additional up to two, three, or nearly ten times more per year than the actual ticket price itself for that extra level of chance.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

James McAvoy and Claire Foy as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Photograph: Courtesy of the Ambassador Theatre Group.

I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Off The Stage

Part of the problem is that theatres and productions keep pulling in big acting names and causing massive box-office pandemoniums. It’s a marketing ploy and one that works. Create a hype, get someone involved that everyone’s going to want to see, and the show is a sell-out success even before the critics can get a sniff at the actual quality of direction, production, or in some cases, the play itself. The reliance on having a renowned star in a show is becoming a bit of a bore and a cynical exercise. A production doesn’t need a celebrity to be brilliant. Shakespeare in Love currently on in the West End is getting rave reviews despite no big-name brands appearing in it. Famously, when Tennant was unable to make several performances for Hamlet, his understudy, Edward Bennett, did a fantastic job receiving standing ovations, and was arguably a bigger smash than the Dr. Who actor himself.

But to suggest that the resolution to this problem is to keep the stars off the stage is an unfair one. Many of them can offer just as nuanced and interesting an interpretation of a character as any other professional actor, and should be free to do so. To disallow them to play these roles would be a loss to theatre, especially as many of today’s TV and film stars steeled their craft on the stage to begin with, and in many cases have really added something to a show that is unique and incredible. Whilst they should be allowed to appear on London’s stages, their presence really isn’t helping the situation.

A Costly Compromise

Memberships to artistic ventures and venues are nothing new, and have been around for decades as a way of supporting theatres and the work they do. These days, with sweeping funding cuts to the arts, theatres are having to rely more on the kindness of strangers (well, “Friends”) to enable them to continue putting our some rather marvellous shows. Theatres like the Old Vic have even taken to auctioning props on eBay to make up the funds they need. It might seem greedy on the surface, especially given the number of critical and sell-out hits they’ve had, but there are huge costs involved in putting on shows. For all the success and money the public see being poured into the theatre from ticket sales, there’s a lot more going out of it then you’d realise.

But what this creates is a very sad and uneasy compromise. The most anticipated and sought after theatre is becoming a thing that only those who can afford membership, particular the higher tears, can get a decent change of accessing. With London theatre officially having a bigger audience than the Premier League, you begin to realise the potential amount of theatre goers who will end up being priced out of seeing some great shows, especially if they don’t have they the tenacity and sheer luck needed during the general booking period.

Whilst the fringe still, and always will, offer some brilliant shows for much more reasonable prices, actors like Cumberbatch, Anderson, Tennant, and McAvoy shouldn’t be kept merely at the pleasure of those who can cough up the cash. They should be able to be seen by everyone.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador's Theatre Group.

Smiley happy members having fun. Photograph: Courtesy of Ambassador Theatre Group.

Members Only

It’s difficult situation to come up with a solution to. Limit the number of membership priority seats and/or stymie the priority booking period and you get a lot of disgruntled people who have paid-up for nought, causing theatres to lose that level of commitment and funding. Without the reliance on those who can act as such mini-philanthropists, we would probably lose some of our best theatres and wouldn’t be able to even have imagined productions such as Frankenstein, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, or Macbeth. Celebrity stars are unfortunately a key ingredient to ensure a production actually makes money rather than run at a loss and/or close prematurely (usually), so getting rid of those won’t solve things either. But without trying to give the general public more and fairer opportunities to get to see these shows, theatre may well become the playground for the relatively wealthy, enjoying an elitism that has stereotypically been seen as the reserve of opera.

But that’s not to say theatres are at all giving up on the general more cash-strapped public. Many still offer discount and low-cost tickets for shows. But these seem to be getting fewer, not because their allocation is shrinking but because their demand is growing. You just need to get up early enough to see the lengthy queues forming as early as 7am for returns and day tickets for some productions. Even broadcasting theatre to cinemas, another well-meaning and noble way of opening up the accessibility and increasing an audience outside of auditoriums, feels like a cheap consolation prize. In reality, you’re pretty much seeing a film and not a theatre show: it’s just not the same. It’s great that theatres are still looking to cater to those on lower budgets, but the truth is that, for want of trying, the provisions are becoming rather inadequate.

It’s a tricky conundrum, but one that should probably be seriously considered in order to keep theatre for everyone, even if there isn’t an immediate answer. This is made more pertinent when theatre groups, such as the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), have come under intense scrutiny about how they make their money recently.

But ultimately, there are a lot of people who would have liked to have seen Cumberbatch play the Prince of Denmark but lost out because they couldn’t pay for priority booking: not just because of a lack of availability. Theatre shouldn’t be proud of this.

Theatre Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Apollo Theatre, London)

Luke Treadaway (left)  and Matthew Barker (right). Photograph: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg. Courtesy of the National Theatre.

Luke Treadaway (left) and Matthew Barker (right). Photograph: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg. Courtesy of the National Theatre.

Rating: ***

The National Theatre and Simon Stephens adapt Mark Haddon’s award winning novel into a stage spectacle. Christopher Boone (Luke Treadaway) is a reclusive 15 year old who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. When his neighbour’s dog is killed with a garden fork it sets him on a detective quest to find the murderer. But Christopher ends up discovering more than just whodunit which sets him on an adventure that will push him and his condition to the very limits.

Played out on a giant piece of graph paper, Bunny Christie’s set and Pauile Constable’s lighting design is astonishing, choc full of secret panels and hidden cubby holes and lit with an array of 3D projections. This suggestion of Christopher’s mathematical mind-scape is dazzling and unforgettable. But it’s not just the stage that is full of surprises. In this vast bare space Marrion Elliot’s direction uses physical theatre to create a unique and visually arresting internal world for Christopher to play out his story. From zero gravity, to wall walking, and fast forwarding, there is an abundance of imagination that’s almost too much to keep up with.

Treadaway is also fantastic as Haddon’s unlikely hero. His intense and unrelenting energy is matched by an acute detail to every aspect of his character, from the revered fidgeting and twitches, to the stilted meter of his responses. You’re just as invested in his performance as the tricks and treatsies of the staging.

The first act is utterly enthralling. Haddon’s narrative is full of intrigue and enigma which cast and creatives do superbly to augment through theatre. There are moments as well that are heartbreaking, especially during the revelation about his mother, making it difficult to disengage with even if you wanted to.

But Act II is an absolute let down. It’s as if Elliot et al had simply run out of ideas. The whimsy present in the first half evaporates completely, especially with a sudden clumsy self-awareness that appears without reason or warning. Scenes become fractious and quick with snap and unruly transitions as the production just trundle on to round off the narrative, rather than revel in the story as it did earlier. This contrast is a real downer after being so spoilt by Act I, and with very little heady high-theatrics to engage with the latter half drags, even with Treadaway’s unwavering octane. The only charm in Act II is provided by a gorgeous puppy, which whilst adorable, is cheap.

It’s such a shame that such a mesmerising opening act is marred by a lacklustre second. But for all its masterful stagecraft and strong performances, if you’ve already read the book you might as well leave in the interval to avoid being disappointed. But overall, you can just about forgive the faults in the second act for the undeniable mark the first leaves with you.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Apollo Theatre, London, W1D 7EZ, until 4 January 2014. Tickets are £12-£85 (concessions available). To book visit www.curiousonstage.com.

Stage Review: Scenes from an Execution (National Theatre, London)

Rating: ****

Galactia (Fiona Shaw) is a brilliant but promiscuous and ‘immoral’ artist. But none the less she’s been given a commission to create a grand public work depicting the Battle of Lepanto, a great naval victory for the republic of Venice. However, instead of the epic piece of propaganda that Doge Ostensibile (William Chubb) has in mind, she sets out to paint a harrowing and violent ‘truth’ setting her at odds with both church and state. She then battles not only against dishonesty, but for her freedom.

Howard Baker’s play is a viper-tongued swipe of when art mixes with politics, deftly interloping comedy with pathos and severity. For the most part it works and Tom Cairn’s production brings aboard some wonderful directorial ideas alongside some stunning stage craft and brilliant acting.

The most striking thing about the show is that initially the approach to the play is quite surreal. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is as restless and disconnected as Baker’s characters and script. Seldom staying still for too long walls turn, painted frescos come alive in slow motion, and rooms fly amongst a sparse lagoon of monolith cuboids lit with only shadows and a few bold colours. Particularly dream-like is The Sketchbook (Gerrard McArthur), an art historian hovering in a modern, bright, and clinical cube commenting on the composing of Galactia’s masterwork in the historic, dirty, and etiquette-less ramble of her workshop below. This becomes just one of the many visually striking moments Cairn offers throughout.

The result is heady and hypnotic and the action is played in some sort of beautiful nightmare, making Baker’s play even bolder that the mere text itself and hitting home not just the rabid excitement of Galactia’s manifesto but the ensuing danger of the inevitable consequences.

But in the second act the imposingness of the direction and the quirk of other worldliness evaporate all too quickly. From being a play with strong themes pointed with grand visions it falls into something more garden variety. Gone is The Sketchbook’s contribution completely, and the stage becomes static as Baker’s battle of political ideals versus artistic expression becomes drawn out into sassy debate rather than played out through grand theatre. The narrative itself becomes more obvious and straight forward distancing itself from the exciting fluidity and energy that embodied Act I. It still has power, but it suddenly lacks punch.

But what holds it together is a bewitching performance by Shaw. She manages to capture the essence of spiteful abandon and egotistical hedonism that fuels her character’s art. She is superb at portraying Galactia’s complete lack of grace, and angry zeal, swaggering about with her tits hanging out of loose rags, taunting, bullying, and cruelly toying with those she loves and comes in contact with. She deliver’s Baker’s rapier cynicism with an astonishing dexterity and effortless charm that shows her reputation still has clout despite her veteran status.

In a play of two unequal halves, Shaw is the only thing that really binds it all together, and you’re left to wonder whether without her the comparatively weak second half would cause the production slide into mediocrity. None the less, this particular production is excellent, even if just to see Shaw in one of her finest moments or be wowed by Cairn’s beautifully unsettling vision of Baker’s biting play.

Scenes from an Execution plays at the National Theatre, London, SE1 9PX until 9 December 2012. Tickets are £12-£32. To book visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Image: Fiona Shaw as Galactia (left) and Robert Hands as Suffici (right). Photograph: Mark Douet. Courtesy of the National Theatre.