Finding Patterns: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Tour

The Curious Incident of the Night-Time UK Tour

Deeply unsettling and deeply funny, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is an emotional whirlwind of a play that opens its audiences eyes to the world it inhabits by channelling it through someone who sees things differently. It alerts us to the things we take for granted, the things that we ignore, and the things that we often, rather foolishly, obsess over.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME UK Tour 2014/2015Joshua Jenkins has real star quality as the remarkably resilient Christopher, both a comfort and a distress to his emotionally fragile father, played with painful and touching integrity by Stuart Laing. Elsewhere, Clare Perkins is hilarious as the grumpy head of Christopher’s special school, while Geraldine Alexander is likeable and engaging as his teacher-come-narrator, Siobhan. Siobhan is reliable, open and honest, a port in the storm of Christopher’s life. She seems to understand him more than most, perhaps mainly because she listens and tries. She is the one person who permits Christopher to tell his own story in a world where everyone else typically controls the plot and decides how best to direct him – although she is wrong about the maths problem.

Mark Haddon writes in the programme that he regrets that the term “Asperger Syndrome” appeared on the original book cover. In a world where diagnoses are all too often seen as catch-all explanations, such terms can limit and close-down our understanding as much as they expand it, and it is becoming more important than ever that we recapture a sense of people’s individuality. The play does not name Christopher’s condition, and its greatest achievement is to put its audience inside Christopher’s head through clever staging, lighting and structure, as much as through any feat of acting. Masterfully directed, it allows us to feel the world with him: overwhelmed by the glaring sensory overload of London; in awe of the intricate wonders of the universe and how small they make our human problems seem; angry at the deceit of his loved ones; and instinctively enamoured of the tiny puppy he eventually receives from his father.

The Curious Incident of the Night-Time UK Tour

Most of all, we enjoy the hunt: we want Christopher to succeed and find his answers. We might spot the solution before he does, but in what detective story is that not true? Half the fun of Sherlock Holmes or similar fiction is the gratification derived from discovering the answer before the supposedly ingenious detective gets it. Of course, it is always easier to understand a problem that is not your own. In Christopher’s situation, caught up in a web of lies, confusion and complex sexual and emotional politics, how many of us would have been able to see the wood for the trees? Or even allowed ourselves to?

This is, after all, as much a story about self-deception as it is about deceiving others: Christopher’s mother convinces herself that her family would be better off without her, his father that Christopher is better off not knowing what has happened to her. These are only falsehoods in the same sense that Christopher understands plays and metaphors as lies: just because they are not facts, doesn’t mean that they are not, in some sense, true. In the programme, Haddon suggests that Curious might really be more about us than it is about Christopher. Here’s another contention: Curious, like many (arguably all) good stories is more about storytelling than anything. How do people write the world? What do they see? What do they miss? How do we narrate our lives? Curious allows us to understand the nuanced and varied perspectives of all its different characters, despite the fact that it is this very nuance and difference that Christopher struggles most with. The stories his mother and father and all the other people around him tell serve the same function for them as mathematical equations do for Christopher: they are a reassurance, a means of imposing a kind of order and logic on a bewilderingly chaoticTHE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME UK Tour 2014/2015 universe. Changes to these stories frighten them, as much as change unnerves Christopher, which is precisely why his father feels the need to suppress narratives written by Christopher and his mother that conflict with his own.

The structure of Curious on stage reflects this, with Siobhan acting as the placid voice of reason as she reads from Christopher’s book and offers him encouragement. As a result, the ending – or rather, the lack of one – becomes even more poignant. Christopher’s story is left incomplete. He closes the play celebrating his successes so far and believing that they mean that he can now do anything. To his mind, the narrative of his future life is already written, and all that remains is to turn the pages and read it. His teacher, on the other hand, doesn’t seem so sure. Whatever kind of calm Christopher has found for the time being, in five, ten, twenty years, like any of us, he will be a different person, in a different story.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 6th June. To book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website or call the box office on 0844 338 5000.

The Curious Incident of the Night-TimeUK Tour

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The Birmingham Hippodrome Celebrates a Record Year

BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME - Local schoolchildren enjoying schools matinee performance of pantomime (Parental approval granted)

With over 625,000 tickets sold, the Birmingham Hippodrome has now announced 2013-14 as a record-breaking financial year. The theatre has for been recognised for some time as the country’s most popular single auditorium, averaging around 500,000 visits per year. Representing about 85% of capacity, this year’s increase is thanks in part to a slew of major shows like The Lion King, War Horse and Phantom of the Opera.

The news follows many other important steps forward for the theatre over the last few months, including its successful energy use reductions, its nomination as one of the Sunday Times’s “Top 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For”, and its certification in OHSAS 18001 (Occupational Health and Safety Management), with the Hippodrome believed to be the first UK theatre to achieve the last of these.

stuart-griffithsSaid the Hippodrome’s Chief Executive Stuart Griffiths:

“It’s not very often that these programming moments come together so perfectly, but with more than a little help from our producer partners Cameron Mackintosh, Disney, the National Theatre and Pantomime producers Qdos, alongside others, it looks like we’ve shattered all previous known records.  It’s gratifying too that we’ve seen such a huge rise in first-time bookers with over 48% new to the Hippodrome in the last 12 months.

“Dance received a boost with our resident partners Birmingham Royal Ballet presenting its most successful Nutcracker  at Christmas; and Mathew Bourne’s sell out Swan Lake.   We ended the financial year this spring with two other huge successes, the classics Fiddler on the Roof and Singin’ in the Rain.”

In addition to a surge in ticket sales, the theatre’s Hippodrome Plus outreach scheme has been attracting a lot of attention, with the number of people involved in its creative learning projects having doubled to over 16,000. Big outdoor events like Summer in Southside, Illuminate and the Four Squares Weekender have been key to this growth. Elsewhere, fundraising has also increased dramatically, with generous donations from members of the public, as well as an expansion of the patron scheme and a rise in corporate membership of over 30%.

Neil Pugh - Building FrontEncouraged by this success, the Hippodrome team are now investing in lots of exciting new projects for the upcoming year. Said John Crabtree, Chair of the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust,

“In keeping with the successful formula created in recent years, the success of the last financial year is already being used to invest in the programme and towards further developing a diverse audience.  The month-long International Dance Festival Birmingham, co-produced with DanceXchange, starts at the end of April, South Africa’s Cape Town Opera return in July with their production of Show Boat whilst St. Petersburg’s acclaimed Mariinsky Opera bring Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Birmingham in November.”

Theatre exterior photo by Neil Pugh.

Casting Revealed for One Man, Two Guvnors UK Tour

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As part of a 37-city tour of the UK and Ireland, The National Theatre’s award-winning comedy, One Man, Two Guvnors will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May. Featuring a range of stage and screen stars, including Eastenders‘ Shaun Williamson, the cast for this the production’s third UK tour has now been announced.

Having previously starred in the West End show, Gavin Spokes will take on the lead role as Francis Henshall, an easily confused yet loveable character who is fired from his skiffle band and subsequently finds himself working for both local gangster, Roscoe Crabbe, and upper class criminal, Stanley Stubbers. Henshall desperately tries to keep his “two guvnors” apart, little knowing that, “Roscoe Crabbe” is in fact his disguised twin sister, Rachel, the real Roscoe having been murdered by her lover – none other than Stanley Stubbers. Spokes has previously performed in Jamie Lloyd’s production of She Stoops to Conquer at the National Theatre and as Oliver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy at the Watermill Theatre. He is currently playing Parsons in the Headlong/Almeida production of 1984.

Rachel/Roscoe Crabbe will be played by Alicia Davies, who was part of the production’s 2013 world tour. Her previous theatre work includes The Bachae and Blood Wedding in Northampton, The Comedy of Errors and The Importance of Being Ernest for Oxford Shakespeare Company and La Cage aux Folles for the Menier and West End. Stanley Stubbers, meanwhile, will be played by Patrick Warner. Like Spokes, Warner has featured in One Man, Two Guvnors in the West End, as well as in The Comedy of Errors for The Merely Players, Junket at the Arcola and Posh at the Royal Court Theatre.

Shaun Williamson (Eastenders, Extras, Life’s Too Short, New Tricks) will take on the role of Charlie “the Duck” Clench, an ageing, semi-retired gangster whose daughter Pauline was previously set to marry Roscoe Crabbe. Pauline, now determined to elope with amateur actor Alan Dangle, will be played by Jasmyn Banks (Eastenders, Little Crackers, Sadie Jones, Life of Riley). Alan will be played by Edward Hancock (Breathless), whose recent stage work includes Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Watermill Theatre, Jack in The Adventure for the Pleasance Courtyard and Manchester Royal Exchange and Guy in Posh for The Royal Court and West End.

Derek Elroy will return to the role of Lord Boateng, which he took on in the West End production. His other theatre credits include Kingston 14 at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Dick Whittington and His Cat at the Barbican Centre, and Vox Pop – The Magnets. Emma Barton (Eastenders, Spooks, You, Me and Them) will play Dolly. Her theatre work includes Doctor in the House (UK tour), Lily in Annie at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Roxie Hart in Chicago (West End and UK tour) and Peggy in the RSC’s The Secret Garden.

One Man, Two Guvnors is directed by Nicholas Hytner and adapted by Richard Bean from Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 play, The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni). It will play at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 26th until Saturday 31st May, with tickets priced at £16.50-£35. To book, call 0844 338 5000 or visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.  For more information on the production, visit the One Man, Two Guvnors official website.

“Delivered From Madness” – The BSA’s Equus at the Patrick Centre

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Sliding in an instant from in-depth philosophical musing one moment to total nudity the next, Equus is far from an easy choice for training, undergraduate actors, making the BSA’s recent production at the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre all the more impressive.

cmsproxyimageWith professional-standard acting ability all round, the cast tackled the play’s difficult and disturbing themes with ease, gauging the tone just right and providing their characters with real psychological depth. From the beginning, the lead actors were thoroughly compelling: Harry Russell maintained a commanding presence as Dysart throughout, while Jack Whitehurst effortlessly conveyed the complex and turbulent inner life of the troubled Alan Strang.

The supporting cast, too, were excellent, with Gareth Adams and Vivian Glaskin convincingly downtrodden and desperate as Alan’s pitiable parents. Grace Bussey, meanwhile, underwent a complete transformation between her two roles as Jill Mason and the Nurse. Had the play allowed for it, it would have been great to see more from this actress, but in spite of her characters’ limitations, her talent nevertheless shone through. As Nugget and the Horseman on the beach, Mikael Froman’s energy was utterly tireless, and with the help of some beautifully made horse-head props, reminiscent of the skeleton-like structures used in The National Theatre’s War Horse, the rest of the cast joined him to create an amazingly effective herd of horses, capturing the creatures’ subtle movements and raw animal pain.

Though minimal, the set was well designed, making the best possible use of the space available which became, at various points, hospital, home, stable, beach, cinema and bus stop. Even when not performing, the full cast generally remained on stage, something which could easily have become distracting had it not been so well done.

Overall, the production demonstrated a great deal of promise, ability and professionalism from its young actors, who, based on this, should be proud of their achievements and confident about their future careers.

Only Remembered – A War Horse Concert with Readings by Michael Morpurgo

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As part of the weekend’s World War I remembrance ceremonies, a War Horse concert, featuring music from the play and readings from Michael Morpurgo’s original novel, took place on Friday at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Timed to fall just before Remembrance Sunday, the striking contrast between Only Remembered and the rather grander, televised war memorials to which we have grown accustomed could not have been more striking. With just three people on stage – musicians John Tams and Barry Coope, as well as Michael Morpurgo himself – the concert had a close and intimate feel, magnifying its emotive power and resonance with each person present. Stripped of the pomp and glory that often obscures bigger ceremonies, it strove instead to paint a more honest and brutal picture of the horror and the pity of war.

Despite having seen the War Horse play very recently, I found John Tams’ music seemed even richer and more beautiful in this context, which allowed listeners to focus on each of the songs more directly. More direct, too, was Michael Morpurgo’s storytelling, which held people’s attention without any kind of visual aid. It was amazing to see whole groups of schoolchildren hanging on his words, more enthralled than adult members of the audience. Their attention never flagged, either, despite the fact that the concert ran through the full story without an interval.

One thing that struck me as I watched the three men on stage was that Michael Morpurgo, unlike the musicians, had chosen not to wear a poppy. I found this particularly interesting after hearing him speak on Radio 4’s Moral Maze last week, where guests debated the poppy, its significance and possible overuse. During the programme, Michael Morpurgo expressed concerns that,

“if we’re not very careful….we focus too much on the poppy and not on the stories of what happened, the history of what happened. That seems to me to be much more important than what poppy you wear or whether you wear a poppy.”

Only Remembered is amongst the most moving and thought-provoking war memorials I have seen or heard, encapsulating the futility of fighting and highlighting the loss on all sides. It served to remind its audience of what is now, sadly, too often forgotten, lost amongst patriotism, perceived heroism and endlessly repeating arguments for contemporary wars: that the true purpose of remembrance  should be to ensure that such terrible things never happen again.

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The National Theatre’s War Horse – An Interview with John Leader at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Leader, JohnIn addition to our interview with War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, puppeteer John Leader was also kind enough to speak to us about his experience as the heart and lungs of Joey in War Horse performances at the Birmingham Hippodrome. What he said gave a fascinating insight into why the puppet horses have been so successful.

TF: How do you make the horse look so life-like?

JL: A lot of training I think is definitely a good place to start. I think it helps to be working together as three people – as a mini ensemble inside a horse. Mostly we are just listening because we don’t speak inside the horse, so I think learning a physical vocabulary shared between three of us so that we can listen and breathe together, that all goes into how we make it work.

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TF: So you respond to whatever is happening rather than having scripted sound?

JL: Yeah, I think that the great thing about what we’re taught here is how we’re taught to always be a horse. It sounds very weird to just ‘be the horse’, and there’s obviously set choreography because you have to have that, for safety reasons. You can’t have a big, huge horse just galloping wherever he wants to gallop, but then a lot of the time we do just get to be the horse. Like if someone drops a bucket on stage, we get to react to it. I think that’s the amazing side: no two shows are the same. Even though you’ve already watched it, when you watch this show tonight it will be completely different.

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HK: How long did it take you to get used to it all?

JL: Get used to it? I think we’re still getting used to it. [laughs] No, I mean we’re used to it now but we do two weeks rehearsal, just with puppeteers when we first start, and then we do another six weeks with the rest of the cast, so it’s eight weeks in rehearsals before we then take it on stage. I think a good eight weeks was a nice base to start from, but even when we open we don’t know everything about it – we get to learn while being on the job.

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TF: One of the things I find impressive is that even when you’re not moving around on stage, tiny movements are still always bringing the horse to life. How to do you get in all the minute details like the twitch of an ear or the flick of a tail?

So, what happens is all three of us each have an emotional indicator cord and they’re things you can use to pick up on things. So in the head, you have the ears, so whoever is controlling the ears so the ears can listen to what is going on at any given time. In the heart, I get to do the breathing, so if he’s angry, for example, I can convey a lot of that through breathing. In the back they have the tail which they can swish. I control the front legs, the head controls the head and the back controls the back two legs and we also have our emotional indicators, so when you bring all those things together I think that’s when you look at it and you really see a horse.

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HK: Did you have to watch real horses to learn about how they behave?

JL: Yes, we went to the National Horse Trust and we got to watch horses and I think I was never really a huge fan of horses but I can safely say that after having done this I want a horse! I don’t know how well it would go down having a horse in Birmingham, just in my back garden running around – I don’t think that would be too acceptable. But I think when I finish this I’d love to own a horse. I think I’ve fallen in love with them, they’ve converted me!

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The National Theatre’s War Horse: An Interview With Michael Morpurgo at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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Before being treated to a first night performance of War Horse at the Birmingham Hippodrome, fellow First Night Blogger Tal Fox and I were lucky enough to have the chance to interview author of the original War Horse novel, Michael Morpurgo. We asked him for his thoughts on the National Theatre‘s adaptation of his work, and how he thought it compared to Spielberg’s film version.

HK: What was your initial reaction when you were told people were looking to adapt your book for the stage?

MM: Disbelief really, disbelief for two reasons. First of all, it was the National Theatre on the phone and you don’t get calls from the National Theatre very often. I knew they’d done one or two iconic productions for wider family audiences. They’d done Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and they’d done Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin and they’d done these wonderful shows for the whole family for two seasons over four years. They were looking for another show to do and they’d chosen War Horse. So I said,

‘Why? Because no one’s read the book much.’

They said, ‘Well, we’ve been looking for a story with an animal hero at its heart, because we want to do it with puppets.’
It was at that moment that my heart sank. That’s why I say I felt disbelief because I didn’t really believe a show could be made of this story about the First World War with puppets: I couldn’t quite see how anyone could take that seriously. I was thinking of a pantomime horse, which I know is silly but that’s what I was thinking.

They said, ‘No, you must come meet these guys, Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa, and see their work.’

So I went and I saw this life-size giraffe walking across the studio floor with three puppeteers inside and I simply couldn’t believe it. You could see the puppeteers right through it. It was like a skeleton thing walking along, yet you believed totally that there was life in this creature. It was unbelievably moving, I felt tears coming to my eyes. I don’t even feel like that when I see a real giraffe and yet this manifestation of a giraffe, this giraffe spirit, was so touching that I thought that maybe if they could do it with a giraffe, they could do it with a horse too. So my disbelief turned into amazement.
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HK: How involved were you in the process while the show was being put together?

MM: Have you seen the play yet?

HK: I haven’t.

TF: I have.

MM: Did you like it?

TF: Loved it!

MM: Then I had everything to do with it!

We laugh.

MM: All my own work. If you had said the opposite…

I think the truth is that I had very little to do with it. They were really kind, but I’m not a dramatist and they knew this: I am a story-maker. They used the story and they were kind enough to send me the scripts, to bring me along to rehearsals and I’d say what I thought and sometimes they paid attention and sometimes they didn’t. I’ve done enough work now with stage companies, theatre companies and screen people to know that that’s what happens. They take a story and whether you like it or not, once they’ve taken it, once you’ve actually given it to them – once you’ve been paid to give it to them – they are entitled to do with it what they like. The risk you take when you hand your story over is that they will mess it up, and to avoid that it seems to me that you must do your research. So you go to see what the director does, what the writer does and then you make up your mind if they can do it. Don’t expect it to be a simple representation of your story, though, because it won’t be like that. With a genius thing like this, they’ve shone a completely new light on the story and taken it to dimensions I never could have even conceived. When they don’t do it and it turns out to be the opposite, it’s very disappointing. You make mistakes, but in this particular case I got lucky. The right people, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, the two directors, who are both of them unbelievably extraordinary theatrical geniuses, came together. How rare is that? Two directors who come together and share their genius. They created the play. They got Rae Smith to do the design, they got John Tams and Adrian Sutton to do the music and before I knew it, there were all these brilliant people – the best in British theatre – coming together to make this show.

When I first saw it I was hugely disappointed because it was so complicated to coordinate and make the whole thing because nothing has ever been done like it. It juddered and there were moments when it wasn’t working and it was too long, my thought was, ‘This is going to last a week if you’re lucky’. I was very disappointed but then the National Theatre and those two wonderful directors, they got together and they shook it into shape in a week and then on press night I came and saw it again. It was a completely extraordinary show and I turned around and saw all these fancy, hugely prestigious people from theatre and literature in floods of tears. It was just utterly extraordinary! It cuts through intellect to the heart and that’s what they’ve achieved.

I’ve seen it maybe forty or fifty times now, I’ve lost count. I’ve seen it in Australia and I’ve seen it in America and Canada and I’m going to see it in Berlin tomorrow. That’s the most amazing thing – this has never happened before. They haven’t shown a play in Germany about the First World War since it happened because it is something so difficult for them to engage with, and the National Theatre have never done this before either, so there are a lot of firsts happening and it’s very daring, and that’s what’s so wonderful about this. It’s a risk to put puppets on stage in front of people and ask them to take it seriously: for them to do that, it’s got to be so good. And then to take it to Berlin where the memories echo onto the Second World War, a consequence of the First World War, and it is still massively in their conciousness, where they’ll be playing it in a theatre where the Kaiser sat, and later where Hitler sat….Hitler apparently sat in the balcony which looks down on the stage where Joey trots out as this symbol of peace, reconciliation and suffering, one hundred years later. How wonderful is that?
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HK: How did seeing the film for the first time compare to seeing the play?

MM: It was different. The story has taken many shapes. It has been a radio play, it was already a play and we were already doing concerts. Suddenly it was a film and the difference really is the medium. A film tells you just about everything, it leaves you no room for manouvering in terms of your leave of imagination. I’ve been used to being left room for this. I think with the puppets, for instance, it is so much up to the audience to invest in them. They understand the situation and that’s why kids can sit here and watch a horse die because there is no blood, no flesh, you are always imagining it. It’s the same thing when it’s on the page, it is left to the reader. It’s why the thing works so wonderfully well. A book is a useless thing without a reader. That’s when the magic happens: where the story meets the reader and where the author meets the reader. In the play again it needs the meeting of imagination to work, even though it’s stimulating imagination in a different way. With the film it’s on a plate, it’s the whole thing: here’s how it was in Devon in 1914, here’s what the First World War looked like, here is what the horse looked like. Parts of it were wonderful. I think the war scenes were extraordinary, especially the charge across no man’s land. It was less successful where the director understood the story less well. The life of a working farm in 1914 Devon was portrayed in a way that was idealistic. I actually live in the place so I know that life was hard, brutish and muddy. They suffered a lot from damp houses and cold and that didn’t come across in the film. It all looked too tidy and the same thing happened when it came to the French countryside. So there were moments when I thought that could have been a great deal better. I am more critical of the film than I am of the play.

I do have criticisms of the play, too, which I won’t go into now. I even have criticisms of the book. If you’ve read the book you’ll know that is an attempt to look at the universal suffering from all sides. That’s the whole point of using the horse to tell the story. You see it from the British side, the French side and the German side. The British side, I think, is done quite well because I live in the place where the horse comes from and I’m soaked in its whole atmosphere and the history. The French side is quite good because I speak French, it is my second country. I go there, I know the place and I know how France was affected by the First World War. I think when I read my book, the German side is not so well written, partly because I’m more distant from the experience and the culture and the language, from what it is to be German and how it was for them. If I have a major criticism of the book it’s that the German character isn’t as strong as the French or British characters.

The play doesn’t do the whole thing. If you’ve read the book you’ll know that it starts and ends with a sale, it’s one of the things I treasure about the book. Well they don’t do that in the play because they thought, rightly, that dramatically it would be too obvious at the end and almost a repeat work on stage. They were right. I don’t complain about it but when I sit here sometimes I think it would have been nice to have that.
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TF: Do you prefer a play when it is more simplistic and spends more time on the story?

MM: I like the intimacy of smaller, less expensive plays. This is glorious and wonderful and I get to go to wonderful places and there’s a terrific buzz about it all and all that’s lovely but the buzz can sometimes interfere with the truth behind the drama. The great danger of a production like this (though it doesn’t happen in this particular production) is that the stage effects can be so mesmerisingly wonderful that you forget what the play is about. There are plenty of plays on the West End where the stage effects are just amazing and the story gets lost. The quality of the story and the music cannot be sustained if all you’re doing is ‘ahhing’ and wondering at how amazing it all is. It’s not what theatre should be. It’s supposed to be as honest as possible, as honest as a book.
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Photographs from the day are by Tal Fox. To hear an audio version of the interview, check out Tal’s blog here.