Friday Briefing: Hosting Carlos Acosta and talking Sondheim at the National, plus theatrical marmite

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Carlos Acosta receives the Critics' Circle's highest honour

For nine years, I was chairman of the drama section of the Critics' Circle, and I have recently begun a two-year term as President of the full circle. I carried out my first official duty on Tuesday, when I hosted a lunch in honour of dancer Carlos Acosta, soon to take up a new position as director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, at which I presented him with the Critics' Circle Award 2018 for Services to the Arts.

Individual sections of the Circle, including drama, film, dance and visual arts, have their own annual awards; but for this award the sections come together, with each naming a candidate and then a non-partisan vote taken across all the sections for the winner - you don't have to vote for your own section's proposed candidate. Previous winners are a Who's Who of the arts establishment in Britain, including the late Sirs Peter Hall, David Lean, John Mills, Peter Ustinov and the late but defiantly non-sir Harold Pinter; other still-living honourees include Dames Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren, and Sirs Ian McKellen, Alan Ayckbourn, Matthew Bourne, Tom Stoppard and Nicholas Hytner, as well as Stephen Sondheim, Ken Loach, Grayson Perry and David Hockney.

No wonder that Acosta, looking over the list as I sat next to him at the lunch, looked a little daunted and declared himself overwhelmed. He is a naturally modest man - born into poverty, the youngest of 12 children, he once came home to find that his pet rabbits had been cooked to feed the family. Over lunch - rabbit was fortunately not on the menu - we bonded over our shared love of the living variety of rabbits. (I had a pet bunny who defied the odds to live for over 11 years;  average life expectancy is six to seven years, but I'm convinced my Ellie lived on out of sheer spite for my husband who arrived when she was six, and thought he wouldn't have to put up with her for long).

At the 2015 lunch, I discovered that Maggie Smith and I had something in common, too. I knew that she'd had a hip replaced about a month before I did, so we exchanged notes - and discovered we'd both been treated by the same hip surgeon Dr. Robert Marston at St John and Elizabeth Hospital!

Sondheim at the National

Tomorrow sees the final performance of the National's hit production of Follies - originally premiered in 2017, and then revived earlier this year

Sondheim has been often produced at the National, including the British premiere of Sunday in the Park with George (with Philip Quast and Maria Friedman as Seurat and his muse) and wonderful revivals of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. During the run of the latter in 2004, I was lucky enough to be asked to host a platform performance with Sondheim himself. But I was only asked with five hours notice, literally - I was a stand-in! So I didn't have much time to prepare (or be nervous), and only met him for the first time about 25 minutes before we went out on the Olivier stage. It went pretty well - and I got a message via his and my friend Jeremy Sams the next day that the boss said I did well! (Sams has coincidentally been represented this week by the arrival of Amour, a 2002 Broadway musical he wrote with Michel Legrand, in London).

Earlier this week I hosted another NT platform on the same Olivier stage, this time with Ted Chapin, whose day job is as President and Chief Creative Officer of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation in New York - but when he was just 20, was a production assistant (or gofer, as in "go for" the coffee or other errands)  on the original 1971 Broadway production of Follies.

So he had a front row (and stage side wings) seat to the show as it developed during rehearsals in New York, an out-of-town tryout in Boston, and finally opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre. I'm reminded of a song from another Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures titled 'Someone in a Tree', in which two observers to a historic event tell the story from their own points of view - respectively in a tree and underneath the floor. Chapin had a rather better view of the making of Follies, and in 2003, turned the extensive journal he kept at the time into a brilliant book Everything Was Possible, that chronicled the story of the making of this show but also is a wonderful record of the making of any show.

At one point, he quotes from his journal: "So what is my opinion of Follies at this point, one week before going to Boston? I really don't know. I guess I think I fear the show will be brilliant, funny, witty, full of adroit observant things, and yet cold. Will it appeal to those who adore Steve's work? Is that too small a group? Is the show, and the theatre in general, a place for a small group of elitists to go to be amused or entertained? Can you try to teach things, even unpleasant things, to audiences who only want to be entertained? Will they accept it?"

And there, in a nutshell, is the conundrum that has always faced Sondheim. The original production ran for just a year on Broadway; whereas a show like Mamma Mia! played at the self-same theatre for 12 of its 15 years on Broadway. When I interviewed Sondheim in 2004, he even referenced Mamma Mia!: "The theatre-going public in New York is not interested in anything that they haven't seen before. People are less willing to take a chance on something that either they haven't heard about or isn't a hot ticket. They'd much rather see a revival of a show they really like, or a compilation of songs by, say, Abba - Mamma Mia! is a huge hit. They want to feel that the huge amount of money they have to spend to go to the theatre and have dinner, particularly if they come from out of town, is worth it. The same is true in opera - for every new opera that is done, there are twenty-seven Puccini's, thirty-seven Mozarts, and ninety-seven Wagners, that's what the audience wants. When they do do a new opera, the house is half full, and it's just as expensive to do a new opera as to do Bohème."

Marmite musicals

This week I saw the British premiere of Amour at Charing Cross Theatre. And I loved it, as you can read here

But writing my review, I was nervous: might I be on my own? I hedged my bets and wrote, "I'm going out on a limb here with my five-star rating for the UK premiere of Michel Legrand and Jeremy Sams's wistful, witty Amour (all-too-briefly seen on Broadway in 2002), as I'm certain that for others it will be a show they can't bear. It's likely to be a Marmite show - not a show for all tastes."

Of course critics can (and should) disagree: I always say there's no such thing as a 'right' or 'wrong' when it comes to reviews, as it's only an opinion, after all (albeit a considered opinion, based on experience). But often a kind of consensus emerges across different critics, and it can be lonely to be out of step with them.

So I was actually relieved this week to find that I was far from alone on Amour, with Time Out's Alice Saville declaring: "Amour isn't a musical that leaves you with much to chew on, with only the unexpected bittersweet ending complicating its joyfully fluffy feel. But although I can see how it would fall flat on Broadway, its Gallic charms work wonders in this intimate space." In The Stage, Tim Bano called it an "irresistibly charming chamber musical." Both gave it four stars.

That isn't to say it has been universally admired: In The Guardian, John Lewis wrote that "for all the witty rhyming couplets, heart-tugging chord changes and inventive staging, the show struggles to engage emotionally" and in The Times, Ann Treneman wrote "I can see how this chamber-piece musical, set in Paris in 1950, could appeal, even though I found it winsome to the point of silly."

It all comes down in the end to taste. And that's what makes theatre so wonderful, too: our responses are always our own.

Originally published on

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