Friday, October 27, 2006

Entertaining Angels

I think it is fair to say that theatre struggles to survive in England today. But there are still, despite all the difficulties, a handful of big (c. 1,000-seater) theatres in some of the larger towns and cities: for example, Bath, Guildford, York, Brighton, and so forth.

These theatres survive by taking in touring productions of plays which are either already well known, or are judged to be on their way to the West End. Judged, that is, by their publicists, if not by anyone else.

Stand at the back of the stalls in any of these theatres, on an average night, and you are faced with an ocean of grey hair; plus some bald heads. The average age of this audience is about sixty. It is middle class to the core.

In other words, there is a certain well defined type of theatre audience which can cough up £20 or £25 a ticket without too much complaint. And it is an audience with fairly well defined tastes. It quite likes funny, and familiar, and eccentric. It can do serious once in a while: Shakespeare and so forth. It can even do foreign. But it is not at all keen on the shocking, the challenging, and the downright disgusting. Faced with such, the interval will be used as a departure point.

Bear all this in mind, if you kindly will, in the discussion of Richard Everett's (relatively) new play Entertaining Angels, which Mrs GOB and I saw at the Theatre Royal, Bath, yesterevening.

The play stars Penelope Keith, who is yet another Michael Barrymore-type name: i.e. huge in the UK but largely unknown elsewhere. Keith made her name in a TV sitcom, The Good Life, some thirty years ago. Then she was in another TV success, To the Manor Born. In both these she played an archetypal upper-class English lady, eccentric but loveable with it. Yes, Penelope Keith is a pretty good actress when she wants to be; but she made her name playing a certain kind of character, something not too far, one suspects, from her own real-life persona, and she has gone on playing that character ever since.

It is absolutely no surprise, therefore, that in Entertaining Angels Penelope Keith plays the 60-ish widow of a Church of England clergyman. She lives in (but, being widowed, is soon to move out of) a Georgian vicarage in some bucolic English village of the kind which barely exists any longer, at least outside the media.

The play is about the Keith character's adjustment to widowhood. She has a daughter, and a sister, and she talks to the ghost of her dead husband. Also hovering are the new Vicar (a woman! Intolerable!) and her husband.

This being the kind of play it is, there are Revelations. And Reconciliations. And Resolution. There is humour (Keith is good at spiky but funny), and there are tears. And quite a lot of talk about God and the Meaning of Life.

It is all absolutely tailor-made for Penelope Keith and her audience. The latter have come to see Keith do her star thing, and she does her star thing, and everyone is happy.

Except, of course, me. I found it all quite exceptionally tedious.

Now there is no reason at all why you should care about that. I hardly care myself, since it is yesterday's entertainment, and I hope for better next week. But there might, just conceivably, be something to be learnt from this situation/experience which is relevant to the art of writing -- an art about which I have been known to pontificate from time to time.

I am no enemy, as countless posts on this blog testify, to commercial anything: commercial fiction, TV, films, music, you name it. But there is, in my view, commercial and commercial. If the commercial becomes too blatant, too ruthless in its approach, then it becomes exploitation, and I do not care to be exploited. I do not care, either, to have my emotions manipulated in thoroughly unsubtle manners. And, on the whole, I prefer to read and see things which have at least some claim to freshness and originality.

The problem with Entertaining Angels, at least as far as I was concerned, was that, apart from a few references to mobile phones and the like, it could have been written in 1934 by Terence Rattigan. Nobody actually came on and said Anyone for tennis? But they could have done. And the audience would have continued to sit there, grinning inanely.

No, no. It was all just a little too obvious for me.

The TRB web site claims that this production is touring 'Prior to West End'. This is a common claim, designed to impress the punters with the idea that they are going to see a quality product. But I really find it very difficult to believe that anyone would have the steely nerve which would be required to expose this stuff to a West End audience -- not to mention critics. I really do.

The set, however, was pretty good. Designed by the experienced Paul Farnsworth, it provided a convincing backdrop to some far from convincing drama.

10 comments:

Brandon said...

Being from the States, I can't comment on the play you wrote about, but I also like to see and read things that are fresh and original, but that seems hard to find these days. Emotional exploitation in books, plays, or movies is insulting to me; it makes me feel like the writer is saying, "In case your intelligence is a tad below mine, here's the point." I think if more writers imagined their audience as being pretty smart, we'd have less emotional manipulation in books and dramas.

Andrew O'Hara said...

This says a lot for staying at home with a good book. Or even a bad one.

Susan Hill said...

I am not blowing my own trumpet here - or rather, I am only blowing half of it.. but if you go to THE WOMAN IN BLACK when it tours the provinces every other year, go to ANY of the theatres it plays in, and you will find an audience at least three quarters of which is under 30 and many of those under 20..it is true in the West End too.
It works for them. I am always bursting with pride when I go myself and see all those young people who have never been to live theatre, totally gripped and coming out talking about it excitedly.
I say I am only blowing half a trumpet as of course although I wrote the book, the play was adpted briliantly by the late Stephen Mallatratt and the credit for the theatricality of the evening is all his.
It`s sad that it doesn`t happen more.

Paul Ekert said...

I've only really "done" the west-end and London theatres but I can tell you the audiances are usually younger than the "grey" vote you speak off - in fact it has to be said that I am probably one of the older ones there.

But then perhaps its the plays I go to see. If you attend a play with Kieth in it, good as she is, you shouldn't be too surprised at what is presented. It would be like going to see the film Aliens vs Predetor and then complaining it was a cheap SF exploitation of a well known licence...

Woman in Black I managed to book up once when it was in Hammersmith (first run?) back in (guessing) 91 or 92, only to miss it due to illness. Must catch it again sometime.

@Grumpy - Did you ever catch a production of Bouncers? Perhaps that would be more your cup of tea?

Theo said...

Glad to hear Penelope K is doing some good new work. Its hardly her fault but here in the US, most of the Public Broadcasting outlets
have been running The Good Life
and To the Manor for what seems like the past 40 years, over and over and over, right after the Lawrence Welk reruns

Lynne W. Scanlon said...

I love to go to the theater in NYC. That said, often there is absolutely nothing I want to see even though there is plenty on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway at any given time

Theater snobs unite!

I don't want to spend my money on pap...or a retread...or have to sit through a play with a little bit of something for everyone in it in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Yet who can blame the producers for playing it safe in order to fill seats? And the audience is getting what it wants, clearly.

Have you seen The Lion King? A commercial smash. I did not want to go to The Lion King on Broadway. No. No. NO. I did not want to sit next to a bunch of annoying, squirming kids and be bored out of my mind. Don't tell anyone, GOB, but I loved The Lion King.

I want to add quickly that I also saw Vanessa Redgrave in Hecuba at the BAM and loved that, too!

Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

ivan said...

Like Brandon, who probably lives South of me here in greater Toronto, I haven't seen Entertaining Angels, but it strikes me as sort of caroming off good old Pride and Prejudice, but then what do I know? I've been out
of theatre for decades.
I found it of interest thought the Look Back in Anger was resusciated for the London audience in l996, with some success. Hardly a tame play, even after forty years or more.
I used to be charmed by the lyrics of Ray Davies and the Kinks thirty years ago:

Where are the angry young men now
Where are the angry young men now

I wonder what became of the rockers and the mods

I guess they're all makiing it and they've all got steady jobs

And I wonder where they all are now.

Well, for that matter,where are the Kinks?

I am keeping company these days with an expatriate British theatre director in Newmarket, Ontario and he's something of an angry old man, since over here too, even with Canadian content (which I posit as not very much)--The audience is largely pigeon-grey.
Mr. Burdon has directed Look Back In Anger in London and he has new material, but he feels Canada has not done well by him.
Same situation over here as in Great Britain, it seems.
Ah well, my theatre director has at least made the cover of an important magazine out this way, and I am, I suppose, shamelessly courting him in having my own pristine play produced...Babe in the woods.
Nice post, Grumpy, as you can tell by the comments.

pundy said...

Last night I went to see The History Boys. Probably the most moving and joyous experience I've ever had in the theatre. I'm still shaking just thinking about it.

Dave W said...

York also has a nigh-on 1,000 seater producing theatre - York Theatre Royal. I wouldn't thank you for a complimentary ticket to any of the dreadful touring productions that are trailed around the country, simply because the bulk of them are irrelevant crassly commercial nonsense that don't deserve a single audience member. But I wouldn't agree with your opening gambit that "theatre struggles to survive". The West Yorkshire Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough are amongst many producting theatres that are thriving.

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