A debased culture of smartphone-staring and talentless ‘reality’ is killing touring theatre

I was very sorry to learn yesterday that another excellent touring theatre company, the Brighton-based Talking Scarlet, had succumbed to insolvency.

In recent years, I have attended every Talking Scarlet play I could catch in Stevenage or Eastbourne; but despite the fact that the quality was always excellent, I usually found myself sitting in a very small audience.

I’m afraid that if the great British public doesn’t turn up to live theatre, other than populist West End musicals, soon there won’t be any live theatre, apart from those blockbusters at one end of the spectrum, and tiny fringe productions above pubs, for which the actors seldom if ever get paid, at the other end.

For the time being, great institutions such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company continue thanks to state subsidies, but in the current political climate of destroying anything which doesn’t make a profit, one wonders for how much longer even they will be allowed to survive. In any case, touring companies tend to perform plays which fill the important and accessible space one or two steps below the lofty intellectualism of the subsidised theatre.

The national preference now seems to be for staring at videos on smartphones, joining crowds of 10,000+ to watch stand-up comedians in gigantic arenas, and so-called reality TV shows in which talentless ‘celebrities’ set the trend for gross misbehaviour. Oh, and of course, elite sport which acts as a vehicle for crude tribalism and nationalism.

Another aspect of the audiences I find myself among, besides their low numbers, is that they are old. Where are the young theatre-goers in the provinces? They scarcely seem to exist. Apparently our schools, under pressure to focus on subjects which will ‘get you a job’, are failing to provide much in the way of cultural guidance in terms of how to spend wisely some of the money which that job, if you get it, will earn for you.

Where touring plays are concerned, we are deeply into a ‘use it or lose it’ situation; and it looks as if we’re going to lose it, because public taste has decayed almost to the level of ancient Roman circuses and mediaeval bear-baiting.

There Is Still Joy Among The Sadness

A debased culture of smartphone-staring and talentless ‘reality’ is killing touring theatre

‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste

Yesterday evening we saw a play called ‘This House’ at the Garrick Theatre: a satire, I suppose you could call it, on the activities of the ‘whips’ in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It was harsh a lot, funny a bit, and exposed the cruelty of how Labour, with a tiny majority, were forced to keep bringing the sick and injured into parliament to walk through the division lobbies because the Tories withdrew the pairing system in a cynical ploy to try to vote down the government.

I found that and other aspects of the system a travesty of democracy; and if the language was as foul and the casual violence as commonplace among real MPs, I feel disgusted by the behaviour of our honorable members.

The mostly multi-role performances were all strong and convincing, but there is inevitably a lack of dramatic tension when you already know what actually happened.

Irritatingly, every so often an MP would explain ‘in words of one syllable’ to another MP how some aspect of parliament worked, as if they didn’t know. This was obviously for the benefit of the foreigners who make up so much of West End audiences these days (unsurprisingly when tickets cost £70), but to us Brits at a theatre in our own country, it grates.

Although the play is mostly very pacy, it runs for nearly three hours, and in my opinion would benefit from some judicious cutting. For instance, a laboured metaphor about Big Ben taking a long time to repair doesn’t seem to add anything much, and could go altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a scene depicting John Stonehouse faking his own death by drowning in the sea which is so clever it merited a round of applause, but didn’t get it.

Verdict: well worth seeing if you’re an enthusiast for the inner workings of Westminster politics and like seeing famous names effing and blinding a lot; otherwise there might be better choices on offer in London.

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‘This House’ will please Westminster politics buffs, but won’t be to everybody’s taste

‘The New Electric Ballroom’ – A haunting play, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly banal

I went last night to see ‘The New Electric Ballroom’, a play by Enda Walsh, in the studio space at the Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.

It’s about three sisters in a small Irish port, doomed to relive and pass on their emotional and sexual regrets forever.

Some very dense and challenging text, beautifully performed, sometimes left my brain racing unsuccessfully to keep up with the cocktail of longing, pain and unrealisable dreams.

The production was billed as a comedy, but frankly it is far from being a feelgood play, despite some irresistible laughs here and there.

It is, however, a tale which reminds one of how lucky one is not to have lived out the decades we are allowed on this planet in such stultifyingly confined surroundings as these, imposed by what was, at the time of the sisters’ youthful memories, a strictly Roman Catholic and over-moralising society.

Empathetic and convincing performances by Vivien Kerr, Barbara Gardiner, Samantha Powell and James Moore drew us inexorably into the sisters’ memories and pain, the visiting fishmonger’s male vulnerability, and ultimately into the futility of dreaming that their circle of frustration could be broken.

Charles Compton’s sensitive, economical direction gave the actors the space they needed to develop and express difficult characters, framed in a set with just enough furniture and props to locate us in time and place, without cluttering our minds with unnecessary detail.

It can hardly go unnoticed that this is another play about ‘Three Sisters’ – but whereas Chekhov’s lasses look forward in vain to returning to Moscow, these sadder, older maids can only gaze backwards at what might have been.

This morning I sensed that I might find myself thinking back through this haunting, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly and deliberately banal story, for some time to come.

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‘The New Electric Ballroom’ – A haunting play, sometimes poetic, sometimes shockingly banal