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Boss Blog: The Lure of the Longrunner - & Other Tourist Tales

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My 18-year-old nephew visited me from California this month. Over the ten days of his holiday visiting his Aunt Terri (he arrived early the morning after the Oliviers – that was a fun, bleary-eyed trip to Heathrow), there was no question that he’d be seeing a fair share of theatre, more theatre than he’s probably seen in the past ten years. And though he’s not a regular theatregoer by any stretch, he was up for it. Not just in terms of getting a taste for London life, but more specifically getting a taste for his favourite aunt’s London life.

So I rolled out the red carpet, literally. I wangled us first night tickets, complete with after-parties, to two premieres – Neil LaBute’s two-hander In a Forest, Dark and Deep on his first night and Kneehigh’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on his last night – as well as tickets to that quintessential English comedy, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. And, as an added bonus, he got a private tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Andrew is a 6’1”, 19 stone, American football defensive linesman – he’s a big guy, mad about sports, history, rap music and his college girlfriend. Some of the things that impressed him surprised me, some didn’t.

He’d never heard of either Neil LaBute or Noel Coward, so meeting the former and seeing one of the latter’s best-known plays was no big deal. For In a Forest, Dark and Deep, he was however delighted to be able to text his friends that, at the after-party, not only did he get to meet “Jack from Lost and Bruce Willis’ wife from The Sixth Sense” but also, attending the opening, Idris Elba, aka “Stringer Bell in The Wire and the slick boss from The Office (that’s the US version, his girlfriend’s favourite TV show).

Liza Minnelli, who sent the paps and gay men at the Umbrellas opening into a tizzy, didn’t register at all with Andrew – he only vaguely recognised the name as one that comedians sometimes joke about. The explanation that Minnelli is Judy Garland’s daughter was also lost on him.

And while I didn’t think musicals, let alone sung-through French musicals, would be his thing, he absolutely adored The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - and was dismayed to hear that most critics didn’t share his adoration. Most surprising of all, while I busily made arrangements for access to all these great new London offerings, guess what it was that Andrew most wanted to see?

Having travelled across a continent and an ocean, my nephew’s must-see was the West End’s longest musical long-runner, that other sung-through French musical on Shaftesbury Avenue, Les Miserables. When he saw the posters on the Tube broadcasting Les Mis’ three Whatsonstage.com Award wins for its 25th anniversary celebrations last year, he was insistent. (He took photos of those posters, Legally Blonde, Wicked and any others he could find mentioning Whatsonstage.com Awards, bless him.)

In truth, this shouldn’t be surprising at all. While those of us who work in theatre inevitably get caught up in the constant race towards the next big opening, the next big hit, for the vast majority of visitors to London and other audience members, it’s the long-runners with a hard-won international reputation, and an almost mythical aura, that are the real draw. “I saw Les Mis in London!” Andrew was keen to brag to his friends and family, not “I saw the world premiere of a new play”.

Our Awards provide annual proof long-runners are the bread-and-butter of the West End, of course. And, at the Oliviers too, there was a telling moment when the winner of the Radio 2 Audience Award, their prize for long-runners, was announced as We Will Rock You - polite but largely disinterested applause from the celebs and industry guests in the stalls, catcalls and the biggest cheer of the night from the public seats in the upper levels at Drury Lane. If anyone in the stalls had seen We Will Rock You, it probably hadn’t been since it first opened in 2002. More fool, us.

Other theatre things that got the nephew’s enthusiastic thumbs-up: cloakrooms (“how cool, you can pay them £1 and not have to worry about your coat all night!), him being old enough to buy booze at the bars, him being able to take said booze back into the auditorium after the interval (when he could find a plastic cup), chandeliers and other period features (“these theatres are pretty old, huh?”), haunted stories and Whatsonstage.com press quotes on hoardings.

With his history buff hat on, and particularly as a World War aficionado (our itinerary also included a trip to the D-Day beaches in Normandy, the Cabinet War Rooms, the Imperial War Museum and a night in watching DVDs of Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day), Andrew was disappointed not to able to fit in War Horse or stay long enough for our Whatsonstage.com Outing last night to Flare Path (he does know who Sienna Miller is and loves “the guy who played Marc Antony in Rome, aka James Purefoy). He’s hoping to come back this summer.


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