Chris Grady: London theatre through the eyes of a tourist
Recently I hosted two Japanese business leaders here to understand more of how the British theatre industry works - for one it was his first time in Europe, for another it was a return after some years of study.
We were exploring Musical Theatre and apart from 10 x 90 minute meetings with a wonderful array of creative talent, supported by an endurance-interpreter, we also took in three shows. It was fascinating watching the experience through their eyes, mindful of the fact that so many of our regular theatre audiences in the West End are tourists.
First up was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (which is of course not really on Drury Lane so that's a bit confusing!). A warm welcome from the front-of-house team, beautiful restoration of the foyers, a chance to see the Grand Salon which could become the site of a rather exciting presentation if our plans progress, and then settling down in the splendour of the theatre.
We were surrounded by families and students on their phones/devices before the show started. All playing games and texting and connecting with the outside world. I was intrigued to explore with my guests, with their knowledge of games, how theatre is (or could) begin to harness that external illuminated brain in their hands.
It was a less formal audience than maybe would be seen in Tokyo, with many more men. (A tec production manager and I once saw Les Miserables at the Imperial theatre and we were the only two men we could see in the full house).
Charlie was simple enough in storytelling terms to be understood, but the speed of clever-clever lyrical delivery went over my head and English is my first language – my goodness the sound operators have their work cut ensuring maximum clarity. Fortunately the songs aren't essential plot delivery devices, so hearing them in a foreign language isn't necessarily a barrier to enjoyment.
Evening two was War Horse - and here you really see the art of storytelling at its best. There are few inessential words, and the story unfolds with a visual delight and wonder that ensured there were very few dry eyes in the house.
Earlier in the day we had driven past the beautiful and deeply moving statue on Park Lane to the animals who had died in the world wars. This is a universal story and my colleagues did not need to know their European history to be connected to the tale. The cast we saw and the production quality we encountered were both first class. And the theatre staff were extremely welcoming, ensuring a very special evening was had by all.
After the show we decided to grab a drink. I'd been explaining what the rather imposing/scary building just down the road was using references to Dan Brown to explore Freemasonary. So we decided to pop into the rather strange world of the Prince of Wales pub which is so often populated by men in dark dark suits on their way to or from their ceremonial/spiritual home down the road. Tonight though it was normal people enjoying a pleasant warm evening.
So we took our drinks outside, where we got ourselves a West End and Broadway who's who parade. The first night audience from Charlie were walking around the corner, past the pub and the secret masons, and onward to the Connaught Rooms for the party. Sam Mendes, Michael LePoer Trench, Robert Noble, Edward Snape, Adam Kenwright, Nica Burns, and countless stars of stage and screen. It gave me a lovely chance to explain to my guests about many theatres, many productions, and many celebrities. I love people watching.
Finally my guests wanted to see a Fringe Theatre production, and here I have to admit I chose for my own joy. I saw the original production of Billy in 1974 at Drury Lane (not Billy Elliot but the Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, John Barry and Don Black musical from the Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall play Billy Liar).
Now almost 40 years on I could remind myself of my sense of wonder and joy by taking them to the tiny musical theatre powerhouse which is the Union Theatre under the arches near Southwark Tube. Keith Ramsey, a graduate to make those of us who work at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts proud, took the Michael Crawford role. And a first rate cast of West End regulars, new professionals and troopers delivered this fantastic fantasy with all its heart, joy and sadness intact. Thank you to Sasha Regan for inventing the Union, and thank you to the cast and creatives under director Michael Strassen for delighting me.
I have to admit I had forgotten how sad the tale is, and how there are in effect three worlds intertwined – brash Billy the lad, Billy the Ambrosian king, and honest Billy with just one girl. Add three stories differentiated by lighting and a change of pace, plus strong northern accents, and I'm afraid this may not have been an obvious contender for international tourists. But it was great to show them the Union, to explore the fact that this piece had previously filled the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for 900+ performances, and that one of the old granddads in Charlie we'd seen two nights before had co-starred in the original production.
The other delight for the night was to bump into one of our current crop of too unacknowledged and uncheered stars of musical theatre. We have a swathe of phenomenal performers who have been hidden below the dominance of the logo for 30 years. So it was a pleasure to introduce my guests to Johnny Barr and to share stories of the West End, Fringe Theatre, his role in Class Act, and some of his cabaret and theatre colleagues who light up stages across the West End but are not household names.
So my thanks to the casts, creative teams, production teams, and front-of-house teams of Charlie, War Horse and Billy for allowing me to explore so much of British theatre, subsidised and commercial, massive and fringe, new and revival, equity rates and unpaid, dramatic and sugar coated.
I disappeared to catch my train home to Suffolk and they found their way to their hotel and the airport. They will be back for another visit in August when I introduce them to the wonderful world of Edinburgh. Who knows what wonders await.