Tag Archive | "Olivier Award"

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Review: The El Train, Hoxton Hall

Posted on 17 December 2013 by Adam Foster

The El Train

Eugene O’Neill is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century and the first American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But while this trilogy of early one-act plays offers an almost anthropological insight into O’Neill’s recurring themes of disillusionment, alcoholism and despair, they lack the scope and complexity of his later works. As such, this is an endeavour undermined by that old adage of style over substance.

The former music hall at the heart of this Grade II*-listed building has remained largely untouched since it was built in 1863. The El Train sees Hoxton Hall transformed into a New York tenement block in the pre-prohibition era, with exposed brickwork and iron fire escapes nestled beneath the imposing structure of overhead ‘el’ tracks. Stepping off the streets of East London into this atmospheric old building, it is easy to fall immediately in love with this stylishly realised found space venture. The problem is the plays.

The El Train is comprised of three one-act plays: Before Breakfast, The Web and The Dreamy Kid, all set in 1910s New York and intertwined with originally conceived music from a live jazz band, led by vocalist Nicola Hughes. At the centre of it all though is the imperiously talented Ruth Wilson, who appears in the first two plays and makes her directorial début in the third. Having won an Olivier Award for her turn in O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse last year, you sense that Wilson is rather fond of O’Neill. That fondness may well be justified in the case of his later work but here it feels curiously misplaced.

The first two plays are intensely dramatic to the point of almost intolerable melodrama, rarely seen outside of Albert Square. Before Breakfast is a monologue about a woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a failed poet. While Wilson commands the stage with consummate ease as Mrs Rowland, the play is weighed down by encumbering expositional detail.

The second play of the evening, The Web, sees Wilson play Rose, a troubled young mother desperate to escape the thick Manhattan air but unable to raise the money to take her child away with her. As she argues violently with her pimp (Zubin Varla), a neighbour, Tim (Simon Coombs), decides that enough is enough. It’s a densely plotted piece given its short running time and, despite a mesmerising central performance from Wilson, it ultimately feels overwrought.

Thankfully, there is a little more substance to the final play of the evening, The Dreamy Kid, which largely turns its back on melodrama in favour of something more intriguing. As Mammy Saunders (Nicola Hughes) lies on her death bed, her only wish is to see her grandson Dreamy (Simon Coombs), a young man drawn into gang violence and on the run from the law. O’Neill’s premise is more simple here and it allows the story to build to a desolately bleak conclusion.

Under the ‘el’ train tracks, you can’t help but feel that this is an evening designed as a vehicle for Wilson’s undoubted talent. Indeed she has assembled a strong cast, creative team and a fantastically atmospheric venue to boot. But unless you’re an O’Neill devotee, £45 seems a lot to fork out when the plays lack the sophistication of their surroundings.

The El Train is playing at Hoxton Hall until 30 December. For more information and tickets, see the El Train website.

Photo © Marc Brenner.

Adam Foster

Adam Foster

Adam graduated from the University of Exeter in 2012. He is currently enrolled on Royal Holloway’s MA Playwriting course run by the playwright and academic Dan Rebellato. He has previously trained as an actor at The BRIT School and is represented by Alchemy Active Management.

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The Food of Love: Staying in time with key changes

Posted on 11 April 2013 by Annabelle Lee

orchestra pit

“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Director.”
“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Choreographer.”
“Imagine the outcry if there were no awards for Designer.”
“Could there be an outcry when people realise that there is no award for Music Dept (MS/MD/Orch) in Musical Theatre?”

These were the tweets of acclaimed British musical director Mike Dixon a few months ago, in response to this year’s Olivier Award nominations. But is this simply attention-seeking for yet another member of the creative team? No way! It is a sad reflection of where the theatre’s priorities lie; the Oliviers, and other established awards such as the Tonys and Whatsonstage Awards, have neglected the role of MD/MS for some time. It wouldn’t be unreasonable then to cite American MD and co-founder of Theatre Music Directors Geraldine Boyer-Cussac, in her open letter to the writers of SMASH: “While in the classical world, conductors are given the respect they are due, theatre music directors have been second class citizens for far too long in their own community.” A good example of this is the current West End revival of A Chorus Line. It is a fantastic show about dancing and the pain of Broadway; however, it was a real shame that the conductor was not given the opportunity to bow, publicly accepting all the hard work he had put in to make the performers sound so brilliant. In this sense, the MD is just one of a handful of demanding trades: a conductor, orchestrator, accompanist, vocal coach, technician, collaborator, and creative, so it would be plain silly to not give him or her the due respect.

Another key reason to support the MD is surely the very title of musical or music theatre. To take A Chorus Line again, Hamlisch’s score drives the storyline. So, in contrast to what may be a schmaltzy, summary-type overture, it is a piano upbeat which opens the show. Jokey it may be, but it is that short motif which sets the tone for those relentless accompaniments of the opening dance audition. Then, the moving ‘What I Did for Love’, a simple yet honest ballad about sacrificing everything for the sheer love of theatre, an actor’s life totally actualised in song. It takes a skilled person to truly get to the musical and emotional core of these moments.

With the theatre’s constant emphasis on the triple threat, as well as the need for glitzy productions, I fear that the MD and its associated roles will be pushed further into the pit. Fortunately, there is still hope. Such is the graft of the job that many conservatoires, drama schools and universities offer courses and scholarships for this. In addition, the Drama Desk Awards reinstated the Orchestration Award last year, due to popular demand.

Now, I just hope that the Oliviers will implement some key changes…


Image: orchestra pit 2001

Annabelle Lee

Annabelle Lee

Born in Hertfordshire, Annabelle is a graduate from Durham University with an honours degree in Music. She is currently studying for a Master’s in Music at Oxford University and intends to pursue a PhD. She was a Live Blogger for A Younger Theatre at TheatreCraft 2012 and now blogs monthly for A Younger Theatre on the role of music in theatre.

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Mind over matter: How should we respond to theatre?

Posted on 24 April 2012 by Katey Warran

Sometimes it feels like theatre is trying too hard to make a statement. Whether it be too in your face, too controversial, laden with popular culture references or political issues, it can all feel over done. Some productions feel so full of issues that there is barely room to think. I felt like this after leaving Mike Barlett’s 13 and, from what I have heard, DV8’s Can We Talk About This? is another example. It is all too noisy and you are left crying out for breathing space. Less can mean more and, if theatre isn’t thrusting ideas in our faces, it might give us some time to reflect.

Described as “a captivating journey of ordinary people’s otherworldly experiences” and constructed out of animation and “personal stories with music and puppetry”,  Spirit at the Little Angel Theatre is a unique experience. It is a journey of thought and there is a lot of imagery to fall in love with. In particular, I was fond of the androgynous human puppet that towered over the stage with a kind of omnipotent presence, and the white fabric which was given human mannerisms, breathing and crying as it cradled a red cloth like a child.

Primarily a consequence of its lack of narrative structure, Spirit is both beautiful and disturbing. It is built upon snippets of audio – short life stories which are like extracts from someone’s stream of consciousness – providing an exploration of ideas rather than a linear story. It uses audio interviews, puppetry, music, props and a selection of small stacked light boxes to convey spirituality. It is like a dream, quite mesmerising, and despite addressing a heavy subject matter, it does not attempt to impose a view. It is light-hearted and even comic at times.

Although this kind of theatre is certainly not for everyone, it reminded me how important it is for theatre to not only address and analyse questions but to explore and raise them – to excite our imaginations. In this sense theatre – fringe, experimental, physical theatre, movement and performance art in particular – is a platform for thought. It is a place to explore, a creative display, so that audiences can come to their own conclusions.

If I’m honest, I did feel unfulfilled in some sense after Spirit because it really just got me thinking, raising questions and providing no answers, but strangely I quite liked that  because at least it got my creative imagination going. As Matthew Warchus, Director of Matilda, stated last week as he received the Olivier Award for Best Director, the “creative imagination is the key to not only surviving life but improving and changing it for all of us”, so we should hold on to it when we find it.

I enjoyed Spirit, not because I thought it was revolutionary theatre but because it was honest and gave me room to think, a rarity in the world we live in today.

Katey Warran

Katey Warran

Katey is Marketing and Communications Officer of A Younger Theatre and is Marketing Officer at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She does freelance marketing including working for the New Actors Company, loves all things digital and has a passion for Applied and Community Theatre. Katey also has an interest in philosophy, enjoys singing and country music, and is a tea addict.

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Behind the Scenes: how to work when you’re not acting

Posted on 15 November 2011 by Catherine Noonan

Acting is a notoriously tricky business to get into, and most commit to the career knowing that even if they’re incredibly talented, they’re probably going to experience periods when Olivier-Award-winning roles – or any roles at all – are thin on the ground. Actors do not have much job security, which is why knowing how to work when you’re not acting is a useful skill. So, for any actors wondering how to survive in between roles, these few pointers may just come in handy.

Get used to children: It seems like a rite of passage for actors to spend time working with children, so it may be beneficial for an aspiring actor to refine their childcare techniques. International actress Lenka Šilhánová travelled from the Czech Republic to the UK to work as an au pair. She recalls how working with children brought in money whilst leaving room to develop her career: “It allowed me to live in for free, gave me some pocket money to survive, and allowed enough free time to take acting courses, volunteer at The Actors’ Centre and explore how showbiz works over here. Most importantly, it allowed enough time to prepare for auditions at drama schools.”

However, not every actor is seized by an urge to look after kids. Actress Alix Wilton Regan recalls that she participated in “a brief session of teaching drama workshops to children until I realised this was more a babysitting club for overtired parents on a Saturday morning”. Whilst childcare is clearly not a job suited to everyone, it can help actors sustain a connection to their profession. Tristan Pate, who is currently starring in the UK tour of Dreamboats and Petticoats, found teaching kept him engaged in acting even when he wasn’t currently performing: “I was still interpreting Shakespeare and refining my own ideas and methods through directing. It made me feel hungry for the next acting challenge.”

If, like Pate and Šilhánová, you view childcare as an exciting acting challenge, it’s a survival job that can appeal in its flexibility and link (even if sometimes tenuous) to the profession.

Be prepared to do something a little bit humiliating: Whether it’s dressing up in ridiculous costumes or wearing next to nothing in icy weather, every actor has had their share of humorous jobs. Pate recalls a “humiliating experience” when he had to “dress up as an apple core for a police litter awareness fun day and go litter picking with some kids”. He adds, “Costume jobs can be grim. A friend of mine worked outside in full fairy regalia for eight hours last Christmas in the freezing cold.” Šilhánová certainly knows something about working in sub-zero temperatures;  she took on promo work to raise funds for her ticket to the UK. “I was one of the ‘lucky’ 10 or so girls to actually sign with the agency. I did jobs as a promoter at Christmas parties for various companies. It involved long hours for awfully low pay, in high heels and little black dress in winter months, in a mountain region.” Yet even these less desirable jobs can teach actors something useful for future roles. Šilhánová notes that the modelling and social etiquette training she received on the job has since been helpful for various acting roles.

Promoting Christmas parties and litter awareness aside, pursuing a career on stage can be an invaluable opportunity to live out your childhood dream of being a Disney princess, as actor Rod Henderson remembers: “I was laughing with the cast backstage at a panto when the ‘baddie’ grabbed my hand and tried to drag me on stage instead of the princess. Easy mistake to make I guess!”

Keep your head in the game: If you’re finding it hard to relate your job to your acting career, exploring another area of the theatre world can be a way to learn more about your craft whilst making money, too. Henderson advises taking jobs vaguely related to your  field and using these as a way to gain “experience of exactly what it takes to make theatre”. Henderson has worked as a lighting and sound designer, a technician, an assistant, a stage manager, and even as a writer and director, and has found these positions have taught him more about the acting profession: “As an actor I used to be arrogant enough to assume that being on stage was the most difficult part of theatre. Working around the stage, but not on it, has shown me otherwise!”

Alternatively, if theatrical jobs are hard to come by, finding ways to gain transferable skills in unrelated jobs can help you feel that what you’re doing is worthwhile. Actor Dewi Evans has taken on bar work since graduating, and says that although it is completely unrelated to his training it has helped him learn how to deal with customers and run events. Similarly, Šilhánová notes how “working as a receptionist and helpdesk operator helped me with my communication skills.” Even the most dire of part-time jobs can provide useful skills in between pulling pints and working on your telephone manner.

Don’t expect to automatically hit the big time: Most actors admit that the current state of their career doesn’t match the expectations they once held, even if they are making progress in the industry. Wilton Regan admits, “I thought that by now, having been to LA and been signed to some very big agents, I would be much further along the path of ‘rising star actress’, but unfortunately the universe has other plans.” Henderson shares a similar sense of not quite reaching one’s dream, adding, “I had hoped I would be on the London Fringe a bit more, aiming for The National or national tours.”

Yet even these actors have faith in the path they have taken. Henderson says, “Just because I am not on the Olivier Stage or at the New Vic does not mean I’m not making my way there, I’m just on a more circuitous route. There are times when I wake up in the morning and I genuinely don’t know how many different hats I will have to be wearing that day. I like that sort of excitement.” And Henderson’s more circuitous route can have unforeseen benefits, as Pate discovered: “One thing that does surprise me is finding myself in Musical Theatre. I trained as an actor, and although we did do a lot of singing, I barely picked up an instrument in those years – it was only after graduating I realised what an asset musical abilities can be in getting you work. I have surprised myself by ending up on a number one commercial tour. It wasn’t really one of my ambitions but is an achievement none the less!”

Being realistic about the difficulty of breaking into acting is wise, as is an awareness that survival jobs are just a more ‘circuitous’ way to reach your overall goal.

Don’t lose the faith: Even when you keep your goal firmly in mind, spending so much time in survival jobs can be a bit demoralising, as Wilton Regan knows: “You get constant pitying looks from part-time employers along with the words ‘I mean it’s just SO HARD being an actor (pitying sigh). I’ve really no idea how you do it. All the unemployment, no job stability and you’re constantly broke right?’ Yes, we are and no, we’d rather not be reminded of it.”

Whether you’re pouring drinks for other people or teaching their kids drama on a Saturday morning, the key is to make acting your priority and keep faith that it will all work out. Pate advises that “the trick is trying to do things on your own terms as much as possible, so you don’t risk getting into full time employment and struggling to get time off for auditions. I did this was by calling in favours from friends who could get me a few hours work and then trying to make my own opportunities around it.” Evans found a similar tactic was helpful: “Bar work is a great way of earning money whilst being an actor as you are able to swap shifts and interact with the public. I recommend building up a relationship with your managers; if you’re flexible with them when you can be, they are more likely to be flexible with you when you need to take a last minute audition.”

Šilhánová recommends seeing every job as “an opportunity to learn something new… the more interesting life you live, the better actor you become.” Wilton Regan adds: “Use your imagination. It’s the biggest gift you’ve got as an actor, and one you absolutely have to strive to keep alive.”

In other – slightly idealistic – words, even if you’re stuck looking after somebody else’s children or promoting companies knee-deep in snow, trust that the jobs you take between roles will eventually lead towards that elusive Olivier-Award-winning role.

Image credit: Stuart Miles

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