Six days, five shows, some dancers and a requiem

After Monday’s attendance at Richmond Theatre for Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, this has turned into a theatre-packed week.

On Tuesday, I went to the Soho Theatre to review gay theatre legend Bette Bourne being ‘interviewed’ by Mark Ravenhill. The inverted commas are because, although the evening was based on transcripts of interview conversations between the pair of them, Ravenhill then took those transcripts and cut them down into scripted conversations. Last year, the conversations took place over three evenings: this current production further cuts them down to a single evening. It’s not a particularly successful approach to investigating what is a spellbindingly personal story — but being in the presence of Bourne recounting tales from his life is a privilege, in any case.

Wednesday’s outing was to the West End transfer of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem from the Royal Court to the Apollo. I saw it in its original staging, and I have to say it’s one of the few theatrical productions where a second viewing not only brings out new levels of understanding of the script’s many layers, but also suggests that a third visit would reveal even more. As a metaphor for the changing state of England, some of those levels on my Australian friend Chad. Ah well, his loss.

Thursday was an odd day. During the day, the wonderful feeling of experiencing the St John’s College, Cambridge Choir in the college chapel singing elements of Fauré’s Requiem was tempered by the performance being part of the funeral service for my uncle John, a Fellow of the College, who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a long battle with cancer. Family pre-Christmas trips to the West End helped fuel the interest in theatre I’m lucky enough to be able to draw upon in my working life today, so that’s thanks in part to John. Further connections emerged in that Jez Butterworth went to St John’s, Jerusalem was one of the hymns during the service, and the chaplain ruminated on the implicit meanings of Blake’s words during his sermon.

Later in the evening and back in London, it was off to Hampstead for a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods by the MA Music Theatre students of the Central School of Speech and Drama. A creative use of clothes racks and storage trunks showed that you don’t need a huge set budget to convey a sense of place. The whole piece was characterised by some imaginative staging, from quick changes and disappearing witches to expressionistic dance allowing the ensemble to represent the woods and the beanstalk. The quality of performance did vary quite a lot, though — while we may have seen one or two future West End stars, I won’t feel too disappointed if one or two others decide to pursue other careers.

Tonight sees a break from the relentless theatregoing, which starts up again tomorrow with a trip to see Ghosts starring Lesley Sharp and Iain Glen (who is also directing), in previews at the Duchess Theatre. It will be by first experience with Ibsen, I have to admit, and I don’t know what to expect. After that, it’s back to television, and the grand final of So You Think You Can Dance, which I’ll be live tweeting and writing about, especially after the week’s offstage dramas, which saw finalist Robbie White felled by a dislocated shoulder, briefly replaced by last week’s loser Alastair Postlethwaite, and now replace by Alastair and two other, non-competing, dancers to couple with the three remaining competitors.

And that’s most likely the end of this particular glut of theatrical outings. But there will, in the weeks to come, doubtless be more…

A Life in Three Acts

Now aged 70, gay actor Bette Bourne, gloriously bedecked in what he terms his “Golders Green drag”, delivers an inspirational evening as he recounts stories from his life in response to gentle prodding from Mark Ravenhill.

A condensed version of last year’s scripted conversations, originally spread over three nights, the structure does tend to hamstring Bourne’s tales of post-war Soho, discovering drag and the foundation of his ground-breaking Bloolips theatre company. Tales of his father’s violence sound flatter than they should when read from the page in front of him. Having Ravenhill’s offer of a tissue after a particularly harrowing recollection delivered as a scripted direction rather than a genuine moment of concern lends an unnecessarily manipulative air to a scene that deserves greater impact.

In his role as interviewer, Ravenhill does a good job of keeping the subject matter on track. His occasional dips into portrayals of other characters in Bourne’s life, however, are too brief and too scattered to work as intended, becoming instead unwelcome distractions.

It is when Bourne goes off-book, either staring wistfully into the distance or moving downstage to perform to his audience, that the evening comes alive. His determination, forthrightness and good humour come to the fore, keenly demonstrating why he is one of the few people truly deserving the epithet of ‘gay icon’.

A Life in Three Acts
Soho Theatre, London, until February 27, 2010
Authors: Bette Bourne, Mark Ravenhill
Producers: London Artists Projects, Soho Theatre
Cast: Bette Bourne, Mark Ravenhill
Running time: 1hr 50min

Reviewed for The Stage