There was definitely a sense last night of a major new modern play entering the repertoire, as Jamie Lloyd's wonderful production of Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride opened at the Trafalgar Studios. Following on from Lloyd's great productions of Macbeth with James McAvoy and The Hothouse with John Simm and Simon Russell Beale (which didn't do quite so well at the box office), the "Trafalgar Transformed" season has certainly played its part in shaking up the West End.
Having just about recovered from the shock of seeing how very tall the model and actress Lily Cole is in the flesh - she joined a red carpet crowd that included Clive Rowe, Larry Lamb (not Clint Eastwood, as we first thought), Sandi Toksvig, Hugh Ross and several of the Macbeth cast - I settled down to enjoy a show that went with a real zing from start to finish.
Almost perfect until, having spilled the beans on his sexual peccadilloes, Harry Hadden-Paton spilled the blackberries on the picnic blanket in the last scene. As they scattered all over the stage, he glumly improvised: "Sainbury's" which, unaccountably, drew a big laugh, thanks to his delivery; if they'd gone down in the 50s part of the play, would he have said, "Fortnum's"?
When Chimerica opens tomorrow night at the Harold Comedy, London's West End will have the two best new plays in town playing simultaneously in ATG theatres, something of which the newly knighted Howard Panter can be justly proud. He closed off the main foyer of the Trafalgar Studios last night for press drinks and nibbles in the interval, an unprecedented act of hospitality which is seriously undermining my campaign of complaint about the ghastliness of the transformed Trafalgar as a venue.
Unlike the desecration of the old Whitehall's art deco interior, the curtain calls at The Pride were a model of good taste and discretion. The four actors carried on their anti-Putin banners - "To Russia With Love" - protesting the new law designed to suppress alleged gay propaganda in Moscow, just the once, taking three calls in all.
Talking of awkward auditoria, I took a peek on Monday at the newly refurbished and rebuilt Birmingham Rep, where the difficult main house, a single highly raked interior not unlike that of Trafalgar Studios 1, has been left intact, with the sole addition of a cooling system - and carpets on the aisles, to minimise the noisy clunking up and down that visiting actors have always complained about as the audience makes late arrivals (or worse, early departures) throughout the show.
The new offices and rehearsal rooms clamped on to the back of the old theatre are superb, and there's a dramatic connection to the brand new Library of Birmingham that has risen next door like an ocean-going liner clad in circular bands of steel. Having had a good look round, I thought I'd relax by taking the new audio walk that celebrates the Rep's centenary this year.
You can download this centenary stroll from the theatre's website, or borrow an MP3 player from the box office. You then make your way across the city to the Old Rep in Station Street, moving next door to the Electric Cinema, winding your way through the city centre to the Town Hall and back to the new Rep on Centenary Square.
It takes about 45 minutes, though there is only twenty minutes of commentary, spoken by David Graham - the voice not only of Parker in the original Thunderbirds on television, but also Grandpa in Peppa Pig. It's a bit of an old laddie voice, perfectly in tune with the fustian old world quality of the narration, which includes the voice of Sir Barry Jackson himself - the founder of the Old Rep in 1913 - as well as those of Margaret Leighton, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Bernard Hepton, Peter Dews (who opened the New Rep in 1971) and Peter Brook.
Brook merely says of Sir Barry: "He was a gentleman." Hepton elaborates on this, saying how, as a director, his method was to suggest something without insisting on it to the actors, and he was always right. And, apart from a few general scene-setting remarks outside each location, and an insight or two into working with George Bernard Shaw (and Edith Evans) from Ffrangcon-Davies (who died in 1992), that's about it... the stroll is obviously aimed at tourists rather than theatre fanatics.
The Rep re-opens officially on Tuesday 3 September, the same day as the Library, but they are saving their big opening party for the press night of Alan Bennett's People on the following Friday. This marks the start of the play's national tour, with Sian Phillips and Bridget Forsyth in the roles created at the NT by Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett, though Selina Cadell remains on board as the lesbian deaconess of Huddersfield. A shame, perhaps, that the Rep doesn't trumpet its new era with something completely indigenous to the city, or a major new play or musical of its own; but that's the way the world goes now...
- Michael Coveney
- West End
- Theatre Buildings
- Trafalgar Studios
- Howard Panter
- Hayley Atwell
- The Pride
- Trafalgar Transformed
- Birmingham Rep