Monday, October 20, 2008

Break a leg

A few weeks ago Radio Four's Front Row sent me to see a play called "Riflemind". This is not my usual beat. However, many years ago in another life I studied drama and directed plays. Hence I've probably got more insight into how theatrical productions work than I do rock bands.

The reason they sent me is that the play, written by Andrew Upton, was about a rock band getting back together. The reason they were bothering to cover it is that Upton is married to Cate Blanchett, the play was the opening production of a deal intended to bring plays from Sydney to London, it was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred John Hannah.

Not being a regular patron of the legitimate theatre - I gen'lly go to things long after they've been pronounced hits - I wasn't sure whether "Riflemind" was par for the course. To my eyes and ears it seemed very bad. "Mortifyingly bad," is how one critic described it the following day. At the interval I found myself sitting next to the mother of one of the actors. She worked out that I was there to review it. She looked at me with some sympathy. "But what are you going to say?"

Anyway, I did my bit on "Front Row" the following night and, thanks to Google alerts, I was able to track everything that was written about the show. Shows like this live or die by the reviews and "Riflemind"'s were so bad that the "reviews" section of their website still said "coming soon" a full week after the opening. Then there were the special offers with £50 seats going for £20, which still seemed quite a lot for such a trial of an evening. Today it posted closing notices. It's coming off two months before it was supposed to. The credit crunch gets the blame.

I don't exactly know how such a terrible play was given a West End production though I suspect it's something to do with the fact that nobody likes to lay down in the path of a few stars with a shared purpose. The people I feel for in this situation are the actors, the poor cannon fodder on whom such an enterprise depends. Every night for a month they've had to go on in front of an auditorium empty enough to hunt buffalo and give this wretched play their best shot. They will have known it was terrible long before I did. That's bloody hard work, in the words of Nicholas Craig, actor.


  1. It always confuses me when actors - successful, aged ones, usually - refer to their profession as 'honourable'. I've been doing it - and, more frequently, not doing it - professionally for about fourteen years. I've experienced shame, depression, soullessness, crushing indignity and the slow shock that Withnail & I is not a comedy; but never honour. I live in hope.

  2. I don't mind admitting I go to the theatre only very occasionally, and mainly to see famous actors acting. (Not American film stars, incidentally, although I did see Brian Dennehy do Death Of A Salesman.) At least, in the process, I get to see non-famous actors acting too. But I am essentially shallow.

  3. My problem with the theatre is that - unless it's some kind of Fura dels Baus-esque offal-slinging job - it's about as compelling and relevant in today's society as a magic-lantern show. The third wall shtick hasn't worked for 50 years or more. They're just play acting, and doing it about as convincingly as a Cristiano Ronaldo dive, however good they are.

    Use the West End theatres as much needed music venues and adapt the plays for TV, where they belong, say I.

    (I do realise that this view may not be shared by everybody.)

  4. I have a very straightforward, and extremely accurate, approach to theatre productions.

    I ask myself one question:

    "If this was on the telly, would I watch it?"

    9 times (at least) out of 10 the answer is 'no'.

    So I stay at home and enjoy myself instead.

  5. Even though my old man worked in the theatre I was never that keen on it, I saw a lot of great shows (free tickets!) but nothing that was a lot better than a movie.

    I once saw John Malkovich in 'Burn This!' and I fell asleep during the second act.

  6. Many years ago I saw Helen Mirren and Sir Ralph Richardson in the theatre. The Richardson experience was awful; he wasn't wearing a see-through muslin shift.

    (Oh yes, I really am that shallow.)

  7. I studied theatre and drama at college. That experience alone was enough to put me off theatre and drama for the rest of my life.

  8. I'm lucky in that I get to see a lot of theatre for nowt (pal is a critic, see?), but there's little I'd pay forty quid to see. Hairspray is worth the price of admission, unquestionably, but one of my best-ever theatrical experiences was the over-80's choir, the Young At Heart Chorus, at the Lyric Hammersmith last year. Worth every single penny I actually PAID to get in.

  9. Clair the film of the young at heart is being shown in cinemas soon.
    today's mixed up word posting thingy
    "flathed" not sure if this means anything