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What makes a Broadway show fly in the West End

West End and Broadway, 2015: the “special relationship”

Here’s a piece I wrote back in 2015 – which ultimately didn’t see the light of day for various convoluted reasons - about which plays and musicals have made the journey successfully from the West End to Broadway and vice-versa – and why. Hamilton was, as yet, a twinkle in Broadway’s eye, but as the musical hits London, here are some of the major producers on both sides of the Atlantic giving their views of the landscape before Hamilton went off like a powder-keg…

At 2014’s Olivier Awards in London the success of the American musical was the headline story, The Book of Mormon and Once walking away with six of the major awards. Meanwhile, in New York at the Tony Awards earlier this year, it was the British play that was in the ascendant―shows that began in London, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Audience, starring Helen Mirren, taking home 10 awards.

The “special relationship” between New York and London theatre is undoubtedly on a high. The Broadway musical Kinky Boots has just opened to strong reviews and ticket sales in London. New York, in return, plays host to two new British productions: Ivo van Hove’s acclaimed production of A View from the Bridge from the Young Vic in Southwark and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III from the Almeida in Islington.

But turning a profit on a show in both the West End and on Broadway is no easy feat. For every success story, there is a show that fails horribly when it crosses the Atlantic. So what is the secret to creating a transatlantic hit show?

It goes without saying that you’ve got to get the economics right. In the crudest terms, says the London producer Sonia Friedman, whose shows include Jerusalem, The Book of Mormon and Legally Blonde, a hit show is one that covers its original investment and goes on to turn a profit. The British, she says, might like to pretend it’s about more high-minded things like “artistic and critical and audience response, [with] the money as a nice by-product; but it’s down to the money, ultimately.”

On both Broadway and in the West End, the percentage of shows that manage to make a profit stands at around 30%. It can cost around four times as much to open a play in New York as in London, which means that a production in New York has to run for longer to stand a chance of breaking even, and the cut-throat economics of Broadway make the West End seem like a village fete: “You’re either a big hit on Broadway or you’re off,” says Ms Friedman. “[In London] you can bob along quite comfortably on, let’s say, 50%, 60% box office. You need to be in the 75% to 85% plus in New York to have a chance of survival.”

Having to play against such hostile odds, would, you’d imagine, have made producers pretty calculating about what will and will not make for a good transatlantic transfer. But cynicism is the one characteristic I do not find when talking to some of the leading producers in the business. Again and again they speak about the importance of “gut feelings” and “instinct”, simply doing, as Nick Salmon of Playful Productions, the British company behind Kinky Boots, says, “what we think is going to be good and is to our taste.”

Of course producers play their cards close to their chests―they didn’t get where they are by showing their hands too early. Nevertheless, their years of experience must have yielded some nuggets of wisdom about what works and what doesn’t? What about star casting―can a play expect to thrive on Broadway or in the West End without an A-list name in the lead role? “I think if you want to do a play on Broadway, you need a star really,” says Mr. Salmon rather reluctantly, “and I expect the same is true in the West End, sadly, at the moment.”

There’s no doubt that stars shift tickets. Look at the success of Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man in London this summer, not to mention Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Helen Mirren’s Hollywood credentials undoubtedly contributed to the success of The Audience on Broadway―the combination of Mirren playing the Queen being a particularly potent one on Broadway (“the Americans have an absolute fascination with and possibly even greater love for [the Royal family] than the Brits do,” says Ms. Friedman).

But set against these shows The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which conquered Broadway without a star and, similarly, War Horse, which made the National Theatre over $60 million on Broadway. King Charles III has also crossed the Atlantic without a star at its helm (Tim Piggott-Smith is an acclaimed actor in Britain, but far from a household name in America). Whether the royal wave created by Ms. Mirren in The Audience will help Mr. Bartlett’s play to surf smoothly down Broadway remains to be seen, but his writing has real substance and I wouldn’t bet against it.

Where a show succeeds in spite of its lack of a star, producers talk of the importance of the universality of the story. Tim Levy, who runs the National Theatre’s office in New York, cites this as the reason for the success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It may be a story set in the heart of British suburbia, but its subject, the mental struggles of an autistic boy, rises above cultural context to explore the mysteries of the human mind. Similarly Daryl Roth, the New York-based co-producer of Kinky Boots, who has worked on transatlantic productions such as Clybourne Park and One Man, Two Guvnors, points out that, while on the surface Kinky Boots might be the story of a down-on-his-luck shoemaker in Northampton who meets a drag queen and turns around his fortunes by making S&M boots, it is, at heart, about “accepting oneself and accepting others.” Both London and New York alike seem to have warmed to this homespun theme.

Other themes do not translate so smoothly. There can be no better example of a play that got lost in translation than Enron. The play opened to a fanfare of praise in London, applauded for its daring stagecraft and uncompromising criticism of corporate greed. On Broadway it died in less than a month. New York didn’t like being lectured to about its financial iniquities by a British playwright. “It’s our dirty laundry; we’ll get round to cleaning it. Someday,” blogged David Cote of Time Out New York, succinctly. It didn’t help that Ben Brantley, the influential New York Times critic, whose reviews have the power to make or break a show, described it as a “flashy but labored economics lesson.”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s the British musical enjoyed a golden era on Broadway, with shows like Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables stealing the limelight. Now the balance of power seems to have swung the other way with America sending Britain musicals and Britain importing plays back. I ask Ms. Friedman why she thinks this is. “I guess in the most general terms, our tradition, from Shakespeare onwards, is the new play and the American tradition is the musical.” The British subsidised theatre has a long history of supporting new plays and nurturing new playwrights, but, she says, “We don’t support the musicals over here in the same way. We don’t have laboratories; we don’t have government funding really to create new musicals because they’re just too expensive.”

Matthew Warchus, the new director of the Old Vic in London, who has worked on many hit shows in both London and New York, describes how, “You get a tougher ride bringing a musical into New York because there is a sense that it is slightly trespassing on their area of expertise.” Mr. Warchus directed the musical Matilda for the RSC, which went on to be a West End and Broadway hit (it was no lucky flash in the pan, but took seven years to develop, Catherine Mallyon, executive director of the RSC, tells me). Next year he will open a musical adaptation of the film Groundhog Day at the Old Vic in London, but is nervous about doing so. “I am very aware that’s an American musical. It’s an American subject and one of the reasons that we announced that it would be heading to Broadway after London in advance of it actually opening at the Old Vic is because we’re aware it’s an inherently American thing and the oddness of it is starting it at the Old Vic. We’re kind of acknowledging that it’s an American musical that’s temporarily occurring in London.” Mr. Warchus has said that he hopes in the long term that his work at the Old Vic could “kick start a model of new musicals coming from the Old Vic and finding their way on to Broadway or the West End or on the road”―but as yet such ambitions to seize back the initiative from America are in the foothills.

If the British musical has to metaphorically doff its cap as it enters Broadway, the British play seems to have been given the keys to the city. Lynne Meadow, director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which has for over 40 years been a staunch supporter of new British writing, is an unashamed Anglophile: “I love British playwrights, I love the British theatre and I love when we do co-productions,” she tells me. Hal Luftig, the distinguished American producer of shows such as Death and the Maiden, The Elephant Man, Legally Blonde and now Kinky Boots, talks about the strong reputation of Britain’s subsidised theatres and the cachet that reputation lends British work in America. “There is a notion here that if it comes from the National or the RSC or something that is known over here as quality, you know; like a stamp of approval, people do look at it differently.”

But if Broadway has for many years been snapping up the work of living British playwrights, the opposite has not been the case. Why? Is this, in part, British snobbery― a kind of, “We have enough great new playwrights of our own, thank you very much”? Back in 2005 the British producer Bill Kenwright voiced this fear, saying, “I’m not sure we are as welcoming to American writers, actors and directors [as they are to us].” Now, ten years on, there is a feeling that change is in the air. Ms. Roth talks of the “really fine work coming from younger writers [in America]. I think people are keeping an eye out on off-Broadway as a breeding ground for new young talent. I think that British theatre will see more American plays coming to them.” Mr. Levy of the National Theatre echoes her words, “The quality and bravery of new writing in America at the moment is quite outstanding,” and, indeed, Rufus Norris has laid out his stall as the new director of the National Theatre by programming The Flick, by the young American playwright Annie Baker, for his new season. One hopes more is to follow.

As we move further into the 21st century, it’s also important to remember that, important though London and New York are as cultural centres, there’s a whole world out there where plays and musicals can find new audiences and new life. Sir Howard Panter, head of the Ambassador Theatre Group, which owns theatres and produces shows all over the world, leaves me with this thought: “[The transatlantic transfer] is not the only model now. It used to be the only real model that worked, that generated other stuff. But we’re now developing things in Australia which will go to Korea and Japan. We’re developing things in Europe which we think will have legs in Asia Pacific and so on. I think London/Broadway will always be an important axis, but it’s not the only axis anymore.”


The hits and the misses

HITS

Matilda

The musical, based on Roald Dahl’s novel about a five-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis, was first staged by the RSC as a Christmas show in 2010. Written by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin it transferred to the West End in 2011 and won seven Olivier awards. In 2013 it won five Tonys and is still running in the West End and on Broadway. The director Matthew Warchus was pressurised to Americanise the show for its transfer to Broadway (because of the Danny DeVito film many Americans regard it as a quintessentially American story), but resisted.

 

The Book of Mormon

Who’d-a-thunk that British audience would have flocked to see a musical about a religion founded in Salt Lake City? But, with shockingly irreverent words and songs by the team behind South Park, it had them hooked. The musical took eight years to develop, opened on Broadway in 2011 and in the West End in 2013, and continues to run in both cities. The U.S. production has grossed more than $30 million.

 

American Idiot

A musical adaptation of the punk band Green Day’s rock opera about three kids escaping small-town suburbia opened in Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California in 2009, and hasn’t stopped rocking since. Its Broadway transfer won two Tonys and the West End show, which opened earlier this year in the small Arts Theatre where Waiting for Godot was premiered in 1955, was described by The Telegraph as “90 minutes of uninterrupted chaos” and has just extended its run. Not so stupid.

 

Jerusalem

Jez Butterworth’s play, with Mark Rylance in the lead as the drug-dealing Johnny “Rooster” Byron, earned five star reviews when it opened at the subsidised Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009. Rylance won an Olivier for his performance and the play transferred to the West End, then to Broadway, where it extended its run, before, triumphantly, returning to the London. Its producer, Sonia Friedman, feared it ticked every box for a show that had no commercial future until Sir Tom Stoppard goaded her with the words, “You cannot call yourself a producer if you don't transfer this play.”

 

Legally Blonde

A musical adaptation of the film about a seeming air-head who goes on to ace her law degree at Harvard, Legally Blonde did good business on Broadway trying to be a major song and dance musical, but did not recoup its original costs. When it shifted to London, reviewers were sharpening their pencils to give it a panning, but rethought as a comic piece, with the brilliant but then largely unknown Sheridan Smith in the lead, it charmed critics and audience alike. It won three Olivier awards and ran for nearly 1,000 performances.

 

MISSES

Wolf Hall

In 2013, the RSC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall opened to strong reviews in Stratford upon Avon. It became a hit in the West End in 2014 and transferred to Broadway in 2015 for 15 week season. Advance ticket sales in New York were good, but less than a month into its run PBS unexpectedly pulled forward its broadcast of the TV adaptation, starring Mark Rylance, which killed Broadway ticket sales.

Elling

Simon Bent’s play, based on a 2001 Norwegian film about two former psychiatric patients trying to make it in the outside world, opened at the Bush Theatre in London in 2007, before transferring to the West End where it sold out and won critical plaudits. On Broadway, with Brendan Fraser cast as the star, it ran for 22 previews and nine performances before closing.

Spring Awakening

Are the British still a nation of puritans? This rock-musical based on Frank Wedekind’s controversial 1891 play about teenage sexuality won eight Tonys on Broadway, transferred to the West End in 2009, where it won four Oliviers and critical acclaim. The actor Michael Sheen described it as, “one of the thrilling and moving experiences I’ve ever had.” But the earth clearly didn’t move in the same way for British audiences and the show closed five months early.

 

Ghost

The musical adaptation of the cult film did good business in the West End, but detumesced all too quickly when it reached Broadway in 2012, closing after only 136 performances. With Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics writing the music it should have legs, but was it a case of “coals to Newcastle,” with American audiences not ready to love a tried-and-tested American story imported back to them by the old country?

Rocky Horror Show

Lest we forget, even the greatest shows can have a troublesome birth. The Rocky Horror Show opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973 and went on to run for six years in London. When it transferred to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 1975 it managed just 45 performances. Astounding.

 

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre, London W1

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre, London W1


Luke Wright in full flow. PHOTO: Guiseppe Cerone

The performance poet Luke Wright, 34, knows his business, having for many years played warm up for John Cooper Clark, the daddy of punk poets and author of ‘You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express’, ‘I Don’t Wanna be Nice’, and ‘Twat’.

Cooper Clark, black mop of hair and shades, has always had a look and Luke Wright has his own – Fred Perry T-shirt, jeans and Chelsea boots, so far so normal, but a complex, difficult to parse hair-do: part shaved, part quiff, part ponytail anchored to the top of his head. It says, I am who I am and you can take me or leave me.

Baby-faced, slightly fleshy, but, despite looking a bit like the goody-goody on the big night out, an avalanche of self-confidence, Wright launches into his hour long show, streetwise, sardonic couplets about the pretentions of modern, moneyed London spitting from his lips like poisoned darts (London, ‘Where money twerks its Georgian arse’).

His story is simple, of our times, and, if you share his liberal-left outlook, one that will resonate with you if you are aged between 35 and 50 or so. It’s about a middle-class teenager, Nick, growing up in the late 1990s, when Labour got back into power; about his political awakening at university at the feet of a barrack-room Labour-supporter, Johnny Bevan, who was going to change the world, and believed that Tony Blair was just a cover for a new great socialist revolution that was planned (oops); and about Nick’s loss of faith in political passion. Nick ends up a journalist writing a feature about a concrete jungle housing estate in London that has been turned into a boutique hotel for the Urbania Festival, where cultural tourists spend £1,400 a night to stay in a former tower block in east London. Johnny ends up a UKIP supporter, living on the state.

It could all be a bit lame and worthy, except Wright has a proper power over the English language, grasping it to him at times violently, like a man grabbing you by the neck of your shirt, and at other times making it take a walk through the streets with him, arm thrown mateily across its shoulders. Without hesitation, he delivers his script, the rhyming couplets giving way to a looser verse which riffs around the edges of the iambic pentameter.

It’s a feat of memory and energy and of holding an audience in your hand. I’m not sure I quite believed in the stirrings of political revolution the story intimated at the end, though the punky Clash chords of the soundtrack made me want to. I don’t think Nick or Johnny Bevan would have much time for me as I reach middle age, but I voted for Blair all those years ago, and I thought things might change. Who cares, anyway. Luke Wright is a storyteller worth listening to, and I look forward to hearing more.

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Soho Theatre, London, W1 (sohotheatre.com) to 12 March

Splendour by Abi Morgan, Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s play Splendour, first seen at the Traverse in Edinburgh in 2000, is a sophisticated piece of writing. The skill and simplicity with which she pulls it off is impressive.

It’s one of those plays where the characters perform to each other but break off and give asides about what they are really thinking to the audience. This has been done before many times, and I must confess I find it an irritating way of writing.

Growing up a fan of Pinter’s and Ayckbourn’s spare dialogue, mixed with expressive silence where words were not necessary, I find that this style of direct audience address dots intellectual and emotional Is and crosses Ts where I don’t need it, or where a playwright worth his or her salt would find a way to avoid it. The worst example I’ve sat through was a dire piece called The Royal Baccarat Scandal by the former Lord Chancellor Sir Michael Havers in 1989. But also I found it distractingly irritating in Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, though this won so many plaudits that I must admit that I am in a tiny minority of objectors.

But Morgan’s achievement is in a quite different category. In an hour and a half of uninterrupted drama she mixes pure dramatic interaction between characters and direct audience address to show us the same scene again and again and again. Each time she peels off a different layer of thought (symbolised by the characters peeling oranges) and emotion to make us see the action in a different light; but, and here is the genius sleight of hand, she doesn’t just show us the same scene again and again, but subtly moves the action forwards and backwards, edging the narrative both to its conclusion and to its beginning by her shifts in time. When the lights come down we are both at the beginning and the end. It’s a masterclass in writing and should be studied by new writers ad infinitum.

Does it, however, make for a compelling evening in the theatre? Yes and no.

The story is, 15 years on from its premiere, very much one of our times. A photojournalist, Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly) has been invited to the home of a dictator to take his portrait, but when she arrives he is not there and she must kill time with his Lady Macbeth-like wife (Sinead Cusack), her best friend Genevieve (Michelle Fairley, known better from Game of Thrones), and a translator (Zawe Ashton). What will Kathryn discover about the personal life of the man behind the ‘throne’ and will he actually turn up? As the bombs begin to fall outside it becomes clear that a coup is underway and the dictator and his wife have little time left to escape.

The performances, as you’d expect from such a cast, are strong, Sinead Cusack, whom I saw many years ago in the 1980s playing Lady Macbeth to Jonathan Pryce’s Macbeth, well within her comfort zone as a steely wife who won’t fold when the going gets tough. Michelle Fairley brings a watery-eyed resilience to her friend, whose husband, an artist, has been killed by the dictator for his paintings which did not toe the party line. Zawe Ashton is edgy and fresh as the translator who secretly hates the dictator, and Genevieve O’Reilly has the rude, go-get-it punch of an Aussie journalist who will do anything to get the story.

And yet, for all the slickness and sophistication of the director Robert Hastie’s production, this left me cold. Why? I think for all the theme of peeling away of layers not enough is revealed emotionally. The central conflict of the journalist and the dictator’s wife leaves us still with a hard-boiled journo wanting the story and the latter-day Lady Macbeth refusing to melt. Michelle Fairley brings depth as the woman whose best-friend’s husband offed her husband, but it lies too cold on the table. Ashton adds a few comic curlicues.

To digress a moment.  A few years ago I saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Young Vic. There’s a moment where the mother burns a letter to her daughter from a young lover. When she did so, there were people in the audience who gasped and objected out loud as if participants in the drama when she did so. It was an extraordinary experience for a London playgoer: should audience members be engaging so vociferously in the action? But so compelled by the action were that the spectators couldn’t keep silent, as if they had been watching something outrageous on EastEnders  at home.

Abbie Morgan’s play has a similar moment, worthy of such a sound. The dictator’s wife has spoken many times about the love she has for her grandson – she watches Toy Story  and A Bug’s Life with him, adores him – and at one moment talks about how he was there in her house just hours before playing the piano to her – there, she says, you can see the imprint of his backside on the velvet of the piano seat.

When she realises that her grandson has probably been killed in the violence in the city, she goes to the seat, sweeps away the imprint of his backside carelessly and sits defiantly as if nothing is more important than her husband’s rule. At this moment, so visceral was it, that I expected a gasp from the audience at the Donmar. But so straight-laced or disinterested were the audience, that not a whisper came from the arrayed seats. Has the Donmar become too respectful, considering that tickets are like gold-dust to those, critics like me included, on the inside track?

It’s a technically brilliant play, with extraordinary moments. But, on the evening I went, the spark of life on both sides of the stage was tellingly missing.

The Candidate, Theatre Delicatessen, London EC1


By Tim Auld




The Lab Collective’s new interactive show about a candidate trying to win our vote in the General Election is a little gem. It’s funny, clever, unsettling and thought provoking – the perfect place for you to focus your political priorities with only half a day to go before polling begins.


The audience files into a stark, white space and is asked by an eager spin-doctor of indeterminate political affiliation (played by Matthew Flacks) to stand around the edge of the room. The spin doctor then introduces five different politicians one by one (all played by Omar Ibrahim) and we the audience must choose which one we’d like to hear speak.


On the evening I went Ibrahim played a UKIP-supporting anti-immigration campaigner from Leeds. But on another night you might get a suave Conservative or a staunch Labour candidate or a Lib Dem or SNP.


The spectators become a focus group which the spin-doctor uses to polish the politician’s pitch and they are invited to ask questions about any policies, opinions, financial commitments that they choose (I asked about Russell Brand, which shows how high-minded I am). Ibrahim and Flacks must improvise their way through the show from this point on, and it’s a tour de force.


The political debate between spectators and actors becomes unexpectedly involved – and it’s a reflection of Ibrahim and Flacks’ skills that the audience is able to lose themselves in the event and take the political debate seriously.


One last fling before the election – it’s the perfect forum to throw some ideas about and put your beliefs to the test. The directors Natalie Scott and Joseph Thorpe deserve high praise.


The Candidate, Theatre Delicatessen, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1 (theatredelicatessen.co.uk), until 16 May

The Point of No Return, New Diorama Theatre


By Tim Auld




One of the delights of documentary theatre is that you emerge onto the street afterwards heavy with facts, your head buzzing with nuggets of shiny new information.


This isn’t the case with The Point of No Return about the uprising in Maidan Square in Kiev in late 2013/early 2014 that led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian president Yanukovych, the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the rapid cooling of relations between Moscow and the West.


The writer and director Tommy Lexen has spent the last year researching the play and the script is based upon the real stories of protestors involved in the conflict; however, if you come hoping to emerge with a more detailed picture of the political background to the uprising and the more knotty national and international ramifications of its outcome you’ll be entirely disappointed.


Apart from some overhead projections at the beginning of scenes telling us the date (sort of) and how far the action is taking place from Maidan Square, there’s so little contextualisation – I don’t think Yanukovych’s name is even mentioned at any point in the action – that it could almost be about any uprising against oppressive authority anywhere in the world.


At first I found this frustrating. ‘Show me the facts, give me some verbatim speech about what life was like in the Ukraine under Yanukovych,’ I found myself yelling silently at the stage. But as the play developed I realised I had mistaken the director and writer Tommy Lexen’s purpose.


This is not a documentary about facts, but about emotions and about the terrifying psychological shift people have to make when ‘the point of no return’ has been reached in a revolution.


The play follows two stories – a young female student who defies her father’s pleas for her to stay home and keep her head down, and a sister and her adopted brother who find themselves at the heart of the conflict. Both these narratives capture with startling clarity the moment when an individual realises he or she must put the fate of their nation above their love for their family.


Lexen directs an impressive cast of seven and makes good use of dance and physical theatre to capture the adrenaline-fuelled muscularity of the events he portrays.


It’s a worthy topic, energetically told – and I hope Lexen will forgive me if I still wish for a little less music and mime and a little more hard fact.

 

The Point of No Return is at The New Diorama Theatre, London NW1  until 23 May

A Level Playing Field


By Tim Auld




Today around 18 percent of British teenagers over 16 are educated privately. I’d urge every one of them and all their parents to see Jonathan Lewis’s new play A Level Playing Field, at the Jermyn Street Theatre.


It’s clever, hilarious, rude, shocking and touching – and asks vital questions about the value we place on education today, whether at private or state schools. Should our children be ground through a system which places the achievement of high exam grades above everything else? Is learning simply now all about exam technique? What happened to the belief in the importance of a liberal education, of allowing pupils space to be creative and to learn to love knowledge for its own sake?


It’s the last day of A-level exams at a private school in London. A timetable clash means that 11 Philosophy and Ethics students have to spend the middle of the day in isolation in the school’s music room.


As the lights come up we see that the walls of the room have been plastered by one of the pupils, Aldous (Jack Bass), with photocopied images of the actor Nicholas Cage (geddit? Cage, caged, in isolation…). One by one into this cage crash five girls and six boys, and the sparks of anger, frustration and conflict start to fly. Think of it as The History Boys meets The Breakfast Club.


You might expect that a play like this would have been written by a young firebrand, fresh out of school, teenage slang still his or her fluent language. In fact its written by a 51-year-old actor better known for his roles in TV shows like Holby City and London’s Burning.


I haven’t been a teenager for 25 years but the impressed reactions of the teenagers sitting near me in the theatre suggest that Lewis has pulled off a remarkable act of ventriloquism. The gross-out jokes, the silliness, the flashes of intelligence and maturity, the moments of unexpected tenderness just flow from Lewis’ pen. His and his director Chris Popert’s ability to orchestrate 11 characters all talking across each other for over two hours on stage is also remarkable – I haven’t seen anything to match it since Lyndsey Turner’s brilliant production of Laura Wade’s Posh at the Royal Court.


Lewis has done his research. He’s run a number of drama workshops in private schools around London, and his own son, Abe, 19, cast as the bully-boy Zachir in the play, recently left Latymer Upper school in Hammersmith. None of the cast but one (the teacher played by Joe Layton) is a professional actor, but you wouldn’t know it, so natural and believable are the performances.


At times the whole thing gets a little bit shouty and melodramatic, and some of the plot twists stretch the bounds of plausibility, but this is a brave piece of writing and much harder to pull off than it looks. The second act is played in the notoriously difficult key of farce, with, at one point, all of the characters having to strip down to their pants; but, like Ayckbourn at his best, Lewis uses farce to deepen his central theme.


Is the young generation really as narcissistic, arrogant, technology obsessed and shallow as they look? And if they are, whose fault is that? Lewis doesn’t sell his characters short. For all the foul-mouthed, street-slang obsessed idiocy on show, he suggests there is something else precious beneath, which we should take care to preserve.


Jermyn Street Theatre (jermynstreettheatre.co.uk), until 9 May


Alice’s Adventures Underground, Waterloo Vaults


By Tim Auld


Whoever writes the website for the Les Enfants Terribles theatre company knows how to sell a show. ‘Experience immersion like never before,’ it says of its new play based on the work of Charles Dodgson (part of this year’s celebration of 150 years since the publication of Alice in Wonderland).


This is quite a claim, given the explosion of experimentation with immersive and interactive theatre since the Millennium, and the genuine artistic heights that some of these productions have scaled (to name but a few: Punchdrunk’s Faust and The Masque of the Red Death, the National Theatre of Wales’s production of The Persians in the Brecon Beacons, and the work of the curiously named You Me Bum Bum Train).


But Les Enfants Terribles has a good track record with praised productions of The Trench (about the First World War) and The Vaudevillians. The company is a stalwart of the Edinburgh Festival and undoubtedly knows how to work an audience


But does Alice’s Adventures Underground live up to its own hype? The adaptors Oliver Lansley (who also co-directs) and Anthony Spargo have mashed together episodes from both Alice in Wonderland and Dodgson’s later book Alice Through the Looking Glass to create a kind of narrative, which audience members, guided by actors in white romper suits marked as playing cards, follow through the vaults and corridors underneath Waterloo station.


Praise should go to the designer Sam Wyer for his sets (I won’t spoil the surprise of what greets you in the rooms here), and to the performers for their valiant efforts to engage the promenaders (12 sets of audiences walk through the vaults each night, which means the actors are must be swivel-eyed by the end of the evening, having done the same scenes again and again and again).


The script, such as it is (a lot of it seems to be concerned with explaining to us where to go next and what to look out for – a surfeit of health and safety methinks), falls rather flat and fails to capture the dizzying pyrotechnics of Dodgson’s writing. The most fun I had all evening was when one of our guides did a Peter Kay impression, but we had to move on before he really got going, and anyway he wasn’t the real Peter Kay.


At this point I should stress that I am a real fan of immersive theatre – many years on I’m still haunted by The Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre and my experience of You Me Bum Bum Train was the most adrenaline-fuelled time I have ever spent in the theatre (taking the lead role in an avalanche of devised scenes, ending up hosting a talk show with the guest Emilia Fox to a full audience).


At its best, immersive theatre can transport you to an imaginary world, and really take you out of your comfort zone in terms of what you are and aren’t prepared to do. It also liberates the spectator from the confines of a traditional narrative, allowing you to wander round the sets making your own decisions, piecing together the story in your own idiosyncratic way.


Alice’s Adventures Underground, though fun and professionally performed (it is a logistical nightmare) allows none of this. It’s not that this production is bad, it’s just not extraordinary, and immersive theatre really needs that wow factor if it is to avoid being branded mere gimmickry.


Perhaps I’m just jaded by experience and perhaps this reflects the bigger problem: now that it has lost its shock-of-the-new value, how does immersive theatre avoid reiterating dull clichés (a bit of gothic here a bit of vaudeville there) and find new ways to blindside us and grab us by the scruff of the neck? Has it run its course as a dynamic, muscular instrument for theatrical innovation and counter-culture expression, or is there still life in it yet?


I think it should have a future, but variations on a theme of Alice’s Adventures Underground are not, I believe, it.


'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland', The Vaults, London SE1 (the-vaults.org), until 31 August

The Mikvah Project, The Yard Theatre


by Tim Auld


I can’t praise The Mikvah Project, now at the Yard Theatre in Hackney, highly enough. Written by Josh Azouz, a rising young dramatist (another graduate of the Royal Court Writers Programme), this two-hander is innovative, intelligent, daring and beautifully written. In the hour and twenty minutes it takes the story to run from beginning to end, there isn’t a word wasted. The writing is spare, sharp, emotional, and, at times, very funny.


Indeed, it’s a sign of the quality of the script that it is not in any way upstaged by the set, a vast tank holding 80 tonnes of water into which the actors plunge and splosh about – frequently naked.


The water tank represents a mikvah, which (bear with me if you already know what this is; I didn’t) is a ritual bath designed for the Jewish rite of purification.


To this mikvah every Friday come Avi (Jonah Russell), 35, the director of a human rights charity, happily married and trying to have a baby with his wife (he’s also a Spurs fan), and Eitan (Oliver Coopersmith), 17, a student (an Arsenal fan).


They start out talking as men do about women and football, but soon their relationship develops into something neither of them are suspecting. As the two men wash one evening Eitan finds he has an erection (‘This shouldn’t happen to an Arsenal fan,’ he shares in an aside to the audience) and as the weeks go by dares more and more to make his homosexual feelings for Avi known. I won’t spoil the story by saying how it plays out, but suffice it to say that things get complicated.


Coopersmith is cheeky, relentless, irrespressible as the young man coming face to face with his sexuality for the first time and not being ashamed of what he finds; Russell captures all of the agonised horror of a man facing up to his sexuality when he has walked too far along another path to come back.


Jay Miller, director of this play, and artistic director of the Yard Theatre, has created an evening that grabs you by the collar and compels you to watch.


The Mikvah Project, until 14 March at The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, London

 

BOA, Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, London, until 7 March


by Tim Auld


That Boa, the new play by the young playwright Clara Brennan, is passionate should come as no surprise. The new generation of playwrights are the heirs of the in-yer-face revolution of the 1990s, and writing with fire and being brutally honest about emotions is a given part of their creative DNA.


No, what is arresting is the ambition of the piece. Brennan takes as her subject matter not the urgent, contemporary concerns of young people of her generation, but the pain, joy and despair of a couple who have been together for more than 30 years.


It’s a two hander performed by Harriet Walter and her husband Guy Paul. Boa is the nickname of Walter’s character Belinda, a dancer, characterised by her husband Louis as sometimes ‘an arm round my neck like a feather boa, sometimes squeezing the life out of me.’ Louis is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who spends his life travelling to war zones.


It’s the classic story of opposites attract; can’t live with each other, can’t live without. Boa is English, well-heeled, bohemian, a vegetarian who cares passionately about the downtrodden of the world. Like Mrs Jellaby in Bleak House she is given to ‘telescopic philanthropy’, drawn to distant causes like a moth to a flame. She also talks and drinks a lot. Louis, American, the son of a woodsman ‘who held his pants up with twine’, is strong, silent, with a long streak of worldly cynicism, which he uses to puncture his wife’s emotional flights of fancy.


The story of their lives takes place in flashback, the action switching between the present and the past. As you’d hope, there is good sexual chemistry between Walter and Paul, and the director Hannah Price makes nimble use of the tiny stage in basement of the Trafalgar Studios.


I began to feel that Paul’s character spent just too much time standing around looking wryly and resignedly amused at his past, but then his character’s job is to play the straight man to Walter’s mercurial entertainer – and, old-pro that Walter is, she brings a compelling naughtiness and sexiness to her troubled, alcoholic character.


Brennan writes cleverly, but sometimes things get a bit overblown. ‘I love the shit and piss of you,’ Boa says at one point to Louis. Was man ever in this humour woo’d? And sometimes the gears grind when Brennan tries to shift the dialogue quickly back and forth between the registers of comedy and tragedy.


It’s not a long play at one hour and 20 minutes, but sometimes it drags, I think, in part, because you never get the feeling that after 30 years together these characters have really developed or changed each other. It’s packed with big themes – can we change how we think? Is there life after death? etc – but with half an hour to go I longed for the characters to stop talking about themselves and their miseries and move on.


There is a sting in the tail, which I won’t spoil, and for all the play’s darkness there is a glimmer of hope. ‘Keep fucking, living and fighting,’ says Louis to Boa. It’s a sentiment that, intellectually, I entirely embrace. Boa, however, failed somehow to make me feel it in my guts.


Tickets: 0844 871 7632; www.atgtickets.com/trafalgarstudios

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