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Shows with soldiers

The pot calling the kettle black

One can’t get to everything, and according to Tutku Barbaros who writes for ‘The Tung’, that makes me a “dickhead”, because there’s a double-bill of shows out there that she rather liked, and I’m not reviewing it. The “dickhead” allegation isn’t just for me but for every reviewer who hasn’t seen Killymuck and Box Clever at The Bunker Theatre, presumably including other reviewers who write for ‘The Tung’ that also haven’t seen it. It’s not actually libellous, because if it were, there would have to be some reputational damage sustained as a direct result of her remarks. I see no evidence of that to date.

The artistic director of The Bunker Theatre, Chris Sonnex, agrees with Barbaros’ stance, in which she (Barbaros) also complains that while a million people marched in the anti-Brexit rally recently (untrue: there were a lot of people there, but less than a million), there were empty seats at The Bunker Theatre on the night she went. Well, for one thing, the anti-Brexit rally was free to attend – N-O-T-H-I-N-G is free at The Bunker Theatre. Also, the organisers got the word out, so people knew about it. And the rally was at a decent time of day – I’m told the second play in the double-bill doesn’t start until 9pm, so it is not surprising that some booked for the short play at 7.30pm and not the longer one after it. Oh, and it’s not possible to get a thousand people into The Bunker Theatre, let alone a ‘million’. Perhaps Barbaros and Sonnex think audiences are dickheads as well, just for wanting to get home at a reasonable hour. They might as well criticise people for not attending every single production at the Edinburgh Festivals (the ‘Fringe’ alone has well over 3,000 in the space of four weeks). Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

For the record, Killymuck and Box Clever, the alleged ‘must see’ double-bill, have not been universally applauded. Rob Warren for ‘Everything Theatre’ writes as though he might have left early had he not been reviewing: “…come the end it’s a relief rather than a pleasure”. Niamh Flynn for ‘Upper Circle’ wasn’t keen on Killymuck: “[Kat] Woods’ material feels overcrowded and at times hard to follow”. David James for ‘London City Nights’ gave the double-bill four stars, though this seemed more connected with the political stance of the plays, which happened to be aligned with his own: “You should come out of these shows with a burning desire to prevent any Tory politician from ever seeing a glimpse of office so long as they live”. Viva socialism! (And do I really need a whole show to tell me that the left-wing utterly hate the right-wing?)

In the end, I come down on the side of fellow reviewers. There are many shows in any given week to choose from, and with snobbish and hate-filled attitudes like those displayed by Barbaros and Sonnex, I’d rather go to a theatre where I can reasonably expect to be treated with civility. What Barbaros and Sonnex do not acknowledge is that both Killymuck and Box Clever were reviewed very extensively and very positively at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and those reviews are out there for anyone to see. For instance, Steven Fraser for ‘The Wee Review’ deemed Box Clever to have “a fantastic script that is expertly delivered by the two performers” and Olivia Cooke for ‘Ed Fringe Review’ thought Killymuck was “an hour of pure theatrical perfection”.

Show with soldiers #1: Billy Bishop Goes To War

I’d heard good things about Billy Bishop Goes To War, and the (very) good thing about having a couple of days away from the reviewing circuit is that it allowed me to catch something I would have missed completely – the press nights for both this production’s Jermyn Street Theatre and Southwark Playhouse runs being allocated to other reviewers on account of me seeing other shows elsewhere on the same night. (This isn’t unusual – there are often multiple press nights on the same date. On an evening in May 2019, for instance, I’ll be at Barons Court Theatre for Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, so other reviewers will be at the press nights on the same date for Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! at Battersea Arts Centre (a provocative title, I know) and the colourfully titled Fuck You Pay Me at The Bunker Theatre – I don’t think they’d want me there anyway, given my above response to their recent communications).

As for Billy Bishop Goes To War, it is, apparently, one of the most widely produced shows in Canadian theatre since it premiered there in 1978. It’s not difficult to see why. Billy in World War One (Charles Aitken) is very much the colonial hero, fighting for the British Empire and its allies against the German Empire and its allies, though by his own admission he’s not the brightest person to rise through the ranks. Billy in World War Two (Oliver Beamish) looks back on the events of the past, including a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (superseded by the RAF in April 1918). Thus, the audience already knows Billy made it, unlike many, many, many other soldiers.

There are, especially in the last few years with the centenary of the beginning of World War One and centenaries for milestones along the way before the centenary of Armistice Day, a lot of plays about war and soldiering that have been produced. This one at least has something different to offer in the experiences of Billy Bishop (1894-1956), credited with 73 victories. Particularly interesting, and somewhat amusing, was the culture shock he received when he spent time in London. The show does poignancy and poetry, too, especially in its tribute to Albert Ball (1896-1917), a British fighter pilot acclaimed even by the Germans.

It’s classed as a musical, though there wasn’t a list of musical numbers in the show’s programme. But even if there was one, I’d still class it as a play with songs. There are seventeen characters in addition to Billy that the two actors play between them, and although it comes across at times as sheer propaganda, it has a lot of heart.

Show with soldiers #2: Violet

I stand by what I said in my review in January 2019. I enjoyed it sufficiently to grant it a second visit, and this was a ‘muck-up matinee’ as they ought to be, inasmuch as I didn’t notice anything different (though I had my suspicions) and there wasn’t anything that changed the narrative in any way, or outrageous for the sake of outrageousness. The only obviously noticeable thing was musical director Dan Jackson’s cowboy outfit at the curtain call, which made the entire cast beam and grin.

Presented to an early twenty-first century audience, some of its language (the musical is set in Spruce Pine, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964) is of its time and there’s a shock factor in such overt racism being portrayed on stage. But that’s how it was, of course. I was rather chuffed for the opportunity to do a random act of kindness after the show: Matthew Harvey, one of the cast members, is running the London Marathon 2019 in aid of Dog’s Trust. As I didn’t have any spare change on me (having used it all up at the self-service checkout), I had that awkward moment of meeting Harvey on the way out as he stood with a collection bucket. Faced with the choice of pretending to ignore he was there or slipping him some paper money, I opted for the latter. I think he liked it.

Show with soldiers #3: Fiddler on the Roof

Yes, it’s really about Teyve (a most engaging Andy Nyman) and his family during the 1905 Russian Revolution rather than the soldiers who were under orders from the Russian Imperial Government. Being part of a Jewish community, Teyve and his folks and friends (and foes) are told to leave their village of Anatevka and resettle outside Russia (in other words, ethnic cleansing). A sort of sympathetic Constable (Craig Pinder) at least gives them as much notice as he is able, so they are able to sell their property and possessions before moving out.

Certain members of the audience at the Saturday night performance I attended seemed very, very angry even before the show had started. One woman lost her temper at being told to move by a security officer who wanted to see that I didn’t have any bombs or guns or smelly food (etc) in my bag, and then loudly told her companions, “I hate them,” referring to the security officer and myself. I apologised – sarcastically, mind you – and while her companions stopped and acknowledged me, “Her Royal Highness” remained aloof.

On my way into the auditorium, a man was complaining to the front of house staff about the legroom in the stalls, saying it was insufficient for anyone over six foot tall. Having been directed in the general direction of my seat I simply carried on walking without hearing the outcome of that conversation. There does seem to be a legroom problem in the Playhouse Theatre, to be fair: it was quite impossible to let anyone in without not only getting up but moving out into the aisle. This didn’t stop a most unsympathetic member of staff shouting at people several times to sit down as the show was allegedly about to start. And I don’t think I’ll ever understand why people go to the theatre and loudly grumble all the way through in their seats instead of walking out. I had more respect for a man who said to his partner at the interval that they should find a pub – and off they went.

And the show? A cast of at least two-dozen plus an eight-piece orchestra (if you can call an eight-piece band an ‘orchestra’, as the show’s programme does) makes the stage seem very crowded, perhaps even more so in its previous incarnation in the smaller Menier Chocolate Factory. More entrances and exits seemed to be made through the centre aisle of the stalls more than stage left or stage right – on more than one occasion someone would walk to the rear of the stalls and then walk back onto the stage, which was (to be blunt) pointless and distracting. The lighting design could have been better in places – in the larger ensemble scenes there’s lots going on but not all of it could be seen! Worth seeing though, especially for anyone who hasn’t seen a live theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof before. Proper reviews, as ever, are available elsewhere, including ones from my good friends Terry Eastham and Emma Clarendon.

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