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Michael Coveney: Lights up and down on Griffiths, Griffin and top prices

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My last show before taking an Easter break and a few days in the sun on the Canaries was Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward, and although I enjoyed it, and especially the performance of Ben Whishaw, it hasn't really lingered in the mind.

David Benedict got it in one in Variety in saying that Michael Grandage's production was theatrical but not very dramatic, and most other critics have beaten about the bush with various other excuses - too many words was Susannah Clapp's conclusion - though Libby Purves and Tim Walker both piled in with divertingly eccentric five-star raves.

As so often happens when you shut up shop for a few days, all hell breaks loose. First, on Easter Sunday, there was the ITV tribute to 40 years of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical theatre, with an inconclusive preview of a song from his upcoming show about the Profumo affair played on a Spanish guitar.  

The absolute highlight here was Nicole Scherzinger singing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," and tied in second place were Samantha Barks singing "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and Heather Headley knocking the living daylights out of "Memory."

Then the lights were dimmed on Shaftesbury Avenue for Richard Griffiths who died aged 65, and one can only echo the tributes paid to his cleverness and lucidity, though his gargantuan porportions had latterly caused a certain breathlessness on stage that made his performances in both Equus and The Habit of Art a little too precarious for comfort. And The Sunshine Boys with Danny DeVito was not his finest hour.

Nobody would begrudge Griffiths the dimmed lights accolade, but it sounded odd to have it mentioned in the same breath as other similarly lauded worthies such as Olivier, Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Griffiths was good, but he wasn't great, and he didn't bestride our theatre, or shape it, or lead it from the front - apart from telling a few people with mobile phones going off to get lost - in the way that those former titans did.  

I'd hate to think of dimmed lights on the Avenue becoming as regular an occurrence as standing ovations, but I fear and suspect they will become part of the lachrymose public tribute culture that started with the death of Princess Diana and has proved such a boost to florists in every town in the land. 

John Tydeman, the former head of BBC Radio Drama has reminded me what a boost Griffiths himself received when awarded a special contract with the BBC radio rep early in his career. And his emergence at the RSC was one of the great triumphs and pleasures of the Trevor Nunn era. Nunn cast him as Peter in the Ian McKellen/Francesca Annis Romeo and Juliet, and he nearly stole the show ("We must put up our pipes and be gone"). As a result, he joined Zoe Wanamaker, David Suchet and Peter McEnery at the head of the cast for Nunn's joyous 1979 Aldwych Theatre revival of Once in a Lifetime by Moss Hart and George S Kaufman.

I was aware of him five years even before that, when Keith Hack directed The Tempest in The Other Place, a production which I think introduced Griffiths to the company. He played a fine Gonzalo aongside Jonathan Kent as Antonio, Ian McDiarmid as Trinculo and Michael Aldridge as a baggy-eyed, mellifluous old Prospero, all bathed in a wonderful sea score by Stephen Oliver.

It was doubly moving, therefore, to read David Hare's account of how he and Kent, working with Griffiths on a version of a Pirandello play at the Almeida nearly twenty years later, thought of him immediately as their Galileo; a role, ironically, now being played for the RSC by Ian McDiarmid himself.

And Hare has been deprived of another key friend and colleague in the death of Hayden Griffin (aged 70, after a long illness with cancer), a designer who seemed to write the play itself in his vision of it. Griffin was one of the three oustanding designers at the Royal Court in the Bill Gaskill/Jocelyn Herbert era, together with John  Gunter and John Napier.

I've just been looking at pictures of Griffin's designs for three shows at the NT in the early 1980s: the Anthony Hopkins King Lear, directed by Hare; Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Bill Bryden; and Brenton and Hare's Pravda, again directed by Hare.

In the first, Griffin created a sense of height and scale in the Olivier different from anything seen there before or since, using three huge cloths to increase the venue's vertical space; in Glengarry, in the Cottesloe, the office after the break-in was done with boarded up windows and overhead office lighting (no normal theatre lighting), an effect that was both eerie and electrifying; while for Pravda in the Olivier, the newsroom had both a long horizontal scale and a concentration achieved by two diagonals thrusting towards the audience, so simple, so brilliant.     
Christopher Oram's design for Peter and Alice has, in the first and last scenes in the book shop, a definite "feel" of Hayden Griffin about it. But I don't think Griffin would have created an inert Pollock's Toy Theatre for the rest of the play: the picturesqueness doesn't do anything for the dialogue or "action" which is basically floating philosophically in a much looser, less specified, place. The design, in short, seems to suggest another play altogether, or at least a more consoling version of the one we are actually watching.

The other bad news that emerged last week was that of the £125 top "premium" ticket price for both The Audience and The Book of Mormon. The first show is sold out for its short run, so fair enough, I suppose, if the market supports such an outrage, but the creation of an "uber class" of money-no-object ticket-buyers within an audience already paying prices that deprive them of the "what a bad show that was" response option can only diminish the good will and quality of the theatre experience overall.

The talk of Mormon is not so much the show itself as the phenomenon of a £2m marketing budget that yielded a £10m ticket sale advance before it opened and a record sale on the day of the (mixed) reviews, though when I walked past the Prince of Wales at lunchtime on that day, there was not a single soul in the foyer, let alone queuing round the block. Must all be done online.

Mormon won eleven Tony awards on Broadway, while Once, which follows it into the West End this week, only eight, which no doubt explains the much lower key advertising campaign for John Tiffany's production at the Phoenix. There's a refreshing lack of hype and hysteria surrounding Once, which might work in its favour, might not. You just never know.


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