Art in lockdown

Friday Briefing: Creating art in lockdown, and James Graham taking Quiz to the screen

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Every Thursday night at 8 pm, the country pauses for a moment and rightly stands to attention to applaud and cheer the work of medical and other essential workers who are keeping us safe and fed during this crisis. It reminds us of their selflessness in putting themselves on the frontline. 

We can all play our part, however, small, by simply participating; it was wonderfully rousing to see Rebecca Caine - the original Cosette in Les Miserables - leading her neighbourhood street in a rendition of "Can You Hear the People Sing" last night. 

It's also a weekly reminder to me of how helpless I personally feel, but I'm trying not to feel too hopeless - the key workers are a living testament to the need to keep going, to try to heal the sick, and if not to heal them, at least to comfort the afflicted. Each of us needs to play our own part by not keeping going; we just can't do what we used to take for granted, which in my case used to be going to the theatre.      

That's not even an option, of course, as the theatres are shut for the foreseeable future; but instead of fretting about what has been taken away from me (and countless others, whether for work or diversion), I can use my social media platform and my writing ones to spread a bit more positivity.

Many performers are doing this by using their gifts to make and share videos of them doing what they usually do; this is of course invaluable, and music is a great healing force for good. Two composer friends of mine have done utterly beautiful work penning healing, uplifting new songs specifically reflecting our collective experience. 

The wonderful jazz performer Barb Jungr - who I seriously consider to be one of our greatest cabaret performers, though I know she resists the label - has co-written a song called "In My Troubled Days" with her frequent American collaborator John McDaniel, that's both haunting and hopeful. "Flowers open, gently smiling, in those morning rains, all of this can keep me walking, in my troubled days". She's joined by the glorious LGBT+ Fourth Choir on the recording. 

And Howard Goodall -- my favourite contemporary British theatre composer, bar none - has written "Loving Kindness", a new song based on Hindu/Buddist blessing texts that's dedicated to the sacrifice and courage of health workers. It has been soaringly performed by his next-door neighbour Aled Jones on the song demo below. "May you filled with loving kindness, may you be well, May you be peaceful and at ease, may you be happy": what a glorious wish. Virtual choirs are being invited to perform and upload it online - the first choirs who do so will have their names on the sheet music in perpetuity as having given the virtual premiere. 

But today I also want to pause to personally applaud two theatre professionals - one an up-and-coming musical director, the other an actor - who have selflessly become key supermarket workers instead of doing their regular jobs. Just two months ago Rhiannon Chesterman was starring opposite Kevin Clifton in The Wedding Singer at Troubadour Wembley; now she's working in a local Sainsbury's. Yesterday, she tweeted:

What's wonderful is that she's taking great pride in her work - and it's every bit as valuable, if not more so, than being an actor to her. Yet she's also exposed her own vulnerability, too:


And Alex Parker, a musical director and composer who has worked on Les Mis in the West End, Mame at Manchester's Hope Mill and The Color Purple at Leicester's Curve, plus countless one night galas at Cadogan Hall, has also amended his twitter bio to "Sainsbury's Employee." Last week he tweeted a brilliant video from the check-out counter,, and earlier this week found himself making a different kind of store debut, doing a public announcement. 

From stage to screen
West End and Broadway stages were, until they were suddenly shuttered by the Covid-19 crisis, flooded with titles that had been first seen on film (and sometimes television) screens, like Pretty Woman that had only just opened in the West End, and Mrs Doubtfire then in previews and about to open on Broadway. 

But occasionally the journey works the other way around, and one of the great events of this week was the three-part television version of James Graham's Quiz, a play that I first saw at its premiere at Chichester's Minerva Theatre in 2017, before it transferred to the West End's Noel Coward Theatre.

Of course, since the play is based on a celebrated TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and the now-notorious story of the army major and his wife who were convicted of cheating their way to a million-pound win, it has now come full circle back to television, and it was grippingly realised there on what is the story's natural home. 

Given, too, that the TV show that inspired it was what is known as event television, it was smart of ITV who screened this TV version of the play to turn it into event television, too, screening it on three consecutive nights in a  prime-time slot. It's a great and gripping story --- and it was wonderful that James Graham recognised his debt to the theatre when he tweeted about it yesterday, in a thread yesterday. 


He also acknowledged that theatre is where he first met many of the actors in it, including Sian Clifford (who played Diana Ingram): (


 And that's so true. Graham's own career was forged at the Finborough in Earl's Court. Fringe theatres like it often hang by a thread; that thread may be more frayed than ever after this crisis. 



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