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Michael Coveney: All change at Trafalgar, Liverpool and Finsbury Park

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"Trafalgar Transformed" is the title of director Jamie Lloyd's adventure in the Trafalgar Studios with host company Ambassador Theatre Group and, indeed, it's all change all round, with one exception: the discomfort of the audience and the alarming pokiness of the corridors of access from foyer to auditorium.

In his pulsatingly funny production of The Hothouse, Lloyd more or less transforms Pinter into Joe Orton, too. Simon Russell Beale has transformed himself into  a comic monster in the same league as Pere Ubu and the rapist house warden Ariel Castro in Cleveland, Ohio. The auditorium is reconfigured by designer Soutra Gilmour, so that about fifty or sixty of the audience actually sit on the playing arena, dangerously implicated in the madhouse cavortings.

There are indeed new seats in the stalls, but they are so squashed together that I felt I had to admit physical intimacy had taken place with my neighbours when I got home. (Mind you, the journey home was itself not without dramatic incident. I stood in the freezing rain, waiting for a bus in Trafalgar Square, and was nearly ploughed into by a frantically cycling Boris Johnson trying to see what on earth had been going on in the square - some sort of Turkish cultural festivity? -  and if he doesn't know, as the Mayor of London, who does?)

Back to the bottom bobbing. This unwanted, but not totally disagreeable intimacy was partly caused by my otherwise perfectly plush, though cramped, red seat sliding gently to my right, so that my upper right haunch was unavoidably pressing into my neighbour's upper left thigh. You know how it is when this happens: we each tensed our muscles and tried, without speaking, to resist the inevitable.

But she was a very jolly lady and, after a while, we both gave up and silently nuzzled into each other for the rest of the evening. On my left, the distinguished novelist (and sometime Evening Standard drama critic) Michael Arditti was battling manfully with his own walking stick, apologising for any inconvenience it might cause me. How he stood up at all, let alone sat down in his seat, was a wonder of the evening.

And gosh, getting in and out of those seats is such a nightmare, still. With a full house, it takes for ever. I had time to have exhaustive conversations with at least six people, three of whom I knew, one or two I never want to see again in my life. I strongly recommend a visit to the aptly named Hothouse. But don't take anyone who's remotely claustrophobic, and just hope and pray there's not a pyromaniac in the house. You'd only ever escape as a cinder.    

It's so ironic that Soutra Gilmour's set has some art deco-ish window features in an otherwise grimly functional institution, for the Trafalgar Studios have themselves been transformed from the beautiful art deco former Whitehall Theatre interior into this nightmare sump of a misconceived arena, single-tier auditorium. 

There has been so much good theatre design in recent years that it's hard to see how this has happened. Let's just hope they don't bugger up the new Liverpool Everyman, which will re-open next February after a £26m re-build.

Chief executive Deborah Aydon and artistic director Gemma Bodinetz were on hand at the Tricycle the other evening to give a progress report before the opening of their Liverpool Playhouse production of Frank McGuinness' The Match Box (in which, incidentally, Leanne Best gives a performance which deserves to be mentioned in despatches, if not awards long lists, at least).

The Everyman was a Methodist Chapel that morphed into a magically welcoming thrust stage informal theatre with a famous bistro and wonderful location in the Georgian street running between the city's two cathedrals. Remarkably, the total re-build looks very much like the old place with knobs on, but nothing too fancy. And the auditorium looks beautifully adaptable and, what is more, extremely comfortable for the customer.

And next week we have the new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, a two hundred-seat theatre - with a 90-seat studio attached, plus cafe and bar - that has arisen almost by stealth over several years thanks to Jez Bond, an enterprising new  producer who has attracted the plaudits of Nick Hytner, Ian McKellen, Maureen Lipman and countless others in the theatre business.

The proof of the pudding, of course, etc, but it seems there might be a good chance of Finsbury Park registering on the north London cultural radar for the first time since the glory days of the old Rainbow Cinema. 

This week's Critics Circle honoree, Max Stafford-Clark, is about to spill a few tasty beans in a forthcoming book, publisher Nick Hern tells me over a delightful lunch at Le deuxieme in Long Acre, and another Hern title to look out for soon will be My First Play, a collection of 1,000-word essays by the playwrights on his list, ranging from seaside summer shows and pantomimes to big schmaltzy musicals and life-changing Royal Court experiences.

It's a good game, isn't it? The first professional production I saw as a boy was Paul Scofield in A Man for all Seasons. But an even more indelible impression was made on me by seeing the old D'Oyly Carte at the Savoy doing The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan, conducted by Flash Harry himself, Sir Malcolm Sargent.

My head lights up like a beacon at the memory of it: the colour, the melody, the glamour. And yet I was told years later that it was a tawdry, tatty affair more or less marking the end of an era in operetta production. I'd rather live with my illusions, thank you.


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