A is for Aviary: A letter of complaint to the Apollo Theatre

26 10 2011

I’m not a regular letter writer, but a dreadful trip to the Apollo Theatre on Monday managed to draw out the grouchy, sarcastic complainer in me… Well, I had to achieve catharsis somehow! It should be arriving through their letterbox at some point tomorrow morning – but in case you fancied indulging my venting, please find it posted below:

To whom it may concern,

On the morning of Monday 24 October I found myself unexpectedly unoccupied, and so decided to sidle up Shaftesbury Avenue on the off chance that I might be able to procure some day tickets for Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre.

The air was crisp and autumnal, the sunlight peeking tantalisingly through the clouds, and it was a real pleasure to saunter through the heart of the city. Not even the already-established queue outside the theatre could dampen my spirits as I daydreamed of the fun I might have on my day off: perhaps a nice espresso in a quirky Soho coffee house, a walk over the Thames, an afternoon on the Southbank, all topped off by treating my wife to an evening of theatrical entertainment. But I digress…

The 50 minute wait was a blend of trepidation and excitement. Would I be one of the lucky few able to get a ticket? I waited and hoped, charged with a nervous excitement, and so imagine my joy when I reached the front of the queue and discovered that there were, indeed, tickets available! I was over the moon. Not literally, I must point out, knowing, as I now do, how fluidly you at the Apollo like to treat the English language.

The helpful young person in the box office pointed out the available seats on his lurid-coloured two-dimensional chart. Balcony, Row A, seats 11 and 12, in case you’re wondering. And then he admitted ‘the view is a little restricted.’ Now I’ve been to plenty of theatres in my time, and have sat in many a ‘restricted view seat.’ My experience has varied: on occasions the view has indeed lived up to its name, perhaps with an overhanging balcony, or the odd handrail in my peripheral vision. At other times, whatever obstruction may have been in the mind of the vendor was really utterly unnoticeable and I have had a whale of a time. But knowing that ‘restricted’ can be a flexible and multifarious term, I asked just how restricted the view was. 

The answer was as follows: “I admit, you can’t quite see all of the stage. The line of sight is slightly obstructed by a lighting rig.” 

Well, in the moment, overcome as I was with the excitement of having made it through to the front of the queue to watch a play I’d been longing to see, I thought “that doesn’t sound so bad.” Never did it cross my mind that this might be a masterful display of that linguistic tool known as ‘understatement’; and an unparalleled example at that! I snapped up the tickets and quipped: “Well, I’d rather see most of the play than none of the play.”

They chuckled. I chuckled. Deep down they knew.

'Restricted View'?

Now, I am not the tallest man you’re ever likely to meet. My mother is a miniature 5 foot 2, but thankfully my father’s genes balanced me out, and placed me somewhere in the middle. At a relatively average 5 foot 11, therefore, I do not consider myself to be dwarfed or stunted in any way. But even a man of my average stature was unable to see over the rather excessively high wall that sat before me. 

Of course, I am quite aware that none of today’s staff would have been involved in the building process, so I hardly expect to be able to write to the person responsible for seat installation in 1901. But I was baffled by the thought that for 110 years you have been selling seats with a view of nothing but wall. It wasn’t an unsightly wall, it has to be said; just not what I had expected to see. As I sunk into my seat, I resigned myself to the thought that turn of the century theatregoers must have been in the region of eleven feet tall, and that it was a cruel twist of human evolution than rendered these seats useless for the modern man.

What disappointed me most was this: I was specifically informed at the box office (promised, one might say) that my sightline would be obstructed by a lighting rig, and yet in reality I could see no such rig! Not, that is, unless I stood up and peered over the wall. What is the world coming to, when even the objects of obstruction are themselves eclipsed? I paid for my view to be obscured by lights, and quite frankly, I feel cheated…

In order to see anything that might vaguely be considered a theatrical experience (let alone a lighting rig) I had to perch on the back of my chair. Not, please note, the upturned, unfolded seat of the chair, but the very back. And there I sat, on a two-inch wide strip of wood, my head between the feet of those behind me, for the entire first act. I was not alone. Most of the others on the same row adopted similar postures, shuffling every few minutes as the strip of wood caused an unbearable pain in the proverbial. (I considered sneaking to the toilets and taking a photograph of my dented derriere to send you, but didn’t want to give you the satisfaction.)

At the interval, the audience members of Row A were conspicuous by their waddling. A, I have concluded, stands for ‘aviary’ since everyone who sat there was perched like a canary. A few of us, unable to bear the experience much longer sought other seats for the second act. We managed to find some spare chairs at the far side of Row C where we were able to at last have an unimpinged view of a lighting rig and roughly 60% of the stage. Even there we found many people around us grumbling at the views, and since nigh on everybody was having to lean forward in order to see anything of the stage, we still had to squat, stand, perch, lean or otherwise twist ourselves in some yogic fashion in order to see. One chap commented to me that this was the second time he had come to see the show, since the first time he’d bought a day seat and hadn’t been able to see anything. He’d paid double the amount this time, and found the view to be only marginally better. 

I often like to purchase a programme; something to keep which can remind me of the experience. On this occasion I chose not to, though I doubt the experience shall slip my mind for at least a week or so, since I now have back pain now as a lasting memento. And for free! How exceedingly generous of you…

That said, the play itself was very stimulating; audiologically speaking. If there are not already plans for a radio adaptation of Jerusalem, I do hope you will consider it. I would like to vouch for it making an excellent radio play, having been, albeit unwittingly, privileged enough to have experienced a sightless version.

So please do accept my congratulations for your remarkable linguistic gymnastics. You have successfully reworked and relativized the English language to a degree I never thought possible. Who knew that a phrase such as ‘not quite all of’ could actually mean ‘absolutely not one square inch of the stage’ or that ‘restricted view’ really meant I could hardly see more wall if you sellotaped bricks to my eyeballs!

With ‘not quite all’ of my best wishes,

Liam Thatcher

The Widow

22 09 2011

Somewhere in my dim and distant past I studied drama. And I took it relatively seriously. And I tentatively entertained the vague notion that I may one day want to pursue a career in playwriting. Well… that notion has waned somewhat, but I have three scripts to show for it, in various states of dress. One completed and performed, one completed and submitted to theatres (two rejection letters received so far… counting the days until the next couple arrive…) and one awaiting a final edit before I kick it out of the nest and let it plummet down the cliff face towards obscurity.

Yes, since you asked (which I’m well aware you didn’t), you may read them if you wish (which I’m well aware you probably don’t) for the first two of them are online and publicly viewable.

The Bush Theatre runs a site called Bushgreen, which is a great online community allowing playwrights to publish their plays for other potential collaborators to view. It’s a great place to go to read work by new writers, and of course allows folks like me to sustain the hope that someone may stumble across us and consider us the next best thing to hit British theatre.

It is through Bushgreen that you may, if you feel so inclined, check out my latest play, recently uploaded. It’s entitled The Widow and is a one man play, around 75 minutes in length in which a young man, trying to come to terms with the death of his wife begins to plan for the future, taking comfort from his obsessions with language, envelopes and Bertrand Russell. It is a black comedy, exploring themes of bereavement, stubbornness, OCD, denial, hope, escapism, and the blurring of truth and fiction. The widower is a complex and thoroughly pretentious, self-absorbed character who, over the course of the play, becomes increasingly ‘under the influence’. Hopefully a challenging, but enjoyable role to play!

If you want to check it out, you’ll need to sign up and then search for ‘The Widow’ or just ask nicely and I may send you a copy. Feedback gratefully received*


*Level of gratitude may vary!

Thoughts in 60 words…

19 09 2011

This week I’ve been on a bit of a theatre and film binge. I tend to go through little cultural spurts every now and then, interspersed by arid wastelands of theatrelessness. This week was one such spurt. Rather than inflicting a long series of rambling thoughts upon you, I thought I’d just summarise four experiences in 60 words each.

Dr Marigold and Mr Chops

A wonderful opportunity to see one of England’s greatest actors, sadly ruined by… one of England’s greatest actors. Simon Callow gave an exceedingly ropey one man performance, stumbling over lines and prematurely giving away vital plot twists in the process. Very disappointing… And to top it off, he could no better hold an accent than I could hold the wind!

The Tempest

Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, was brilliant as Prospero in Trevor Nunn’s production of Shakespeare’s classic at The Theatre Royal Haymarket. He pitched it brilliantly: compelling and emotional, but not overstated or hyped. Definitely the most enjoyable performance of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Aside from some flat singing from the spirit chorus, the whole cast was brilliant: Highly recommended!

Franco Manca

Not a work of drama, but certainly a work of art! And well worthy of a comment. I don’t need sixty words for this. Best pizza ever! Perfect sourdough base. Go there immediately! Nothing more to say…

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I loved this film! A brilliant performance from a brilliant cast. Oldman was particularly faultless. The pace was perhaps a little slower than I had expected, but every shot was so perfectly and meticulously directed that it was a beauty to behold. A haunting soundtrack, well thought-through cinematography, and a gripping storyline that kept me guessing. Definitely well worth watching!

Give yourself a pat on the back

1 08 2011

I have a theory which I suspect it will be of great interest to budding writers. I’m no mindreader. Nor am I adept in the art of suggestion and mental manipulation, but still, I believe it is possible for authors to write their own reviews through the hands of others.

You heard me right. I believe it is possible to embed within your work subliminal messages which will find their way onto the pages of the broadsheets. All you need to do is place within your work a witty, well-crafted, single sentence, which accurately sums up the entire piece, and which you would happily see at the top of a review.

There’s quite an art to it. It needs to be long enough into the work for the reviewer to have formed at least some basic conclusions, but not so far in that their minds are set already. It needs to be amusing and gripping; a fun, funny, or poignant aphorism that is so memorable that every reviewer will wish they had penned it.

Typically this phenomenon exhibits itself in negative ways; an angry reviewer picks up on a critical or deeply ironic phrase with which to lambast its author. For example, Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, which opened to mixed reviews. Some loved it, many more hated it. They felt it was abstruse, convoluted and monotonous. And many reviewers found in the mouth of Estragon the perfect line with which to begin their scathing reviews:

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

I wonder if Beckett knew that line would be used against him. I suspect not, otherwise he might have said:

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s deep!”

Just the other week I went to see a new production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. I dislike Chekhov intensely, and am not overly keen on Andrew Upton’s translations either (he has lulled me to sleep in public on two occasions now), so I was amused to spot the standout line which summed it up for me, when Ranyevskaya declares boldly:

“Don’t waste your time watching plays – I bet it wasn’t funny at all”

Correct. And I needn’t give any more of my time to reviewing it…

Next time you go to the theatre, watch a film, or read a book, ask yourself the question “If I had to extract one line which accurately summarises the whole, what would it be?” It will produce some surprising, profound or at least very amusing results.

My theory is this: If it works on a negative level, why should it not work on a positive one? Why should an author not be able to implant a positive statement, a glowing report, a witticism so clever and flattering that it sways the opinions of the reviewer and makes it into print?

I shall put this theory to test and report back to you after the publication of my forthcoming book Five Stars and a Well Deserved Booker Prize.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

2 07 2011

Yesterday we went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Nunn has recently taken over as Artistic Director at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, and this is one of three plays he’s directing there this year (we’ve also got tickets for his production of The Tempest with Ralph Fiennes in September.) If this production was anything to go by, his appointment could be a great asset for the theatre.

The play focuses on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but transposes them into a typically absurdist ‘wasteland’ setting, where normal elements such as time, memory, chance and logic are suspended. It is an hilarious, whimsical, beautiful, existential piece of theatre playing with all sorts of lofty themes like death, art, reality, madness, determinism and language.

This production was, simply, faultless. In fact all told I enjoyed it more than the production of Waiting for Godot I saw there last year – which I wasn’t expecting. The two main characters were brilliantly portrayed by Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker; their timing and intonation were flawless, and they really brought out the humour of the play superbly. The ‘question game’ was executed brilliantly and had me in stitches. In fact, I’ve read the play three or four times and hadn’t quite appreciated how consistently humorous it was.

Chris Andrew Mellon did an outstanding job as The Player (replacing Tim Curry, who was originally meant to lend his malleable, creepy face to the role). He looked like a peculiar concoction of Jeremy Beadle, Ross Noble, Matthew Kelly and Beetlejuice… but if you could see past that, his performance was incredibly strong.

I could rave about almost every element… I’ve not been so enthusiastic about a piece of theatre in quite a while. It’s not ‘fresh’ in the sense that it’s a classic piece of absurd theatre (if you’re ever seen any Stoppard, Beckett or Ionesco you’ll know what to expect) but it is absurdism done to perfection. I do on occasion feel that absurd plays can come across as a little tired, with their torrents of futile dialogue and typically minimalist sets, but this had enough energy and focus to keep you rapt in expectation and intrigue.

And to make it better, we had amazing seats in the stalls, and for some unfathomable reason, the people in front of us didn’t return after the interval…

So if you can, you really should go. It runs until 20 August and if you shop around, I’m sure you’ll find some decent offers. I’m sure it’s not everybody’s cup of tea… but you can’t drink tea all your life! Branch out. A splendid time is (almost) guaranteed for all!

Regalement from Literature is dead?

8 06 2011

In a few weeks’ time I’m going to see one of my favourite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard in a new production by Trevor Nunn. Sadly, Tim Curry, who was meant to be in it, has had to withdraw due to ill health… but still, I’m very much looking forward to seeing this play, even in the absence of his creepy eyebrows!

If you don’t know the play, it’s an absurd tragicomedy set ‘in the wings’ of Hamlet, following two of the minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s fantastically funny, a little depressing, and very clever. Though I’ve never seen a production, I’ve read it many times, and can’t imagine it will be anything less than brilliant!

In preparation for our theatre trip, I decided I’d like to re-read Hamlet, so I can get the most out of it… But then I stumbled across this from the First Things blog, ‘When the algorithm read Hamlet.’ Who needs to read the play now? I can take along some charts, and feel fully informed.

This is a slightly peculiar and counter-intuitive way of assessing art, but then again, I recall feeling much the same when I first read N.T. Wright’s assessment of how stories work in The New Testament and the People of God, but after much mulling and pondering, have benefitted a good deal from this somewhat rigorous approach.

So, is this the future of literary criticism? If so, is it a new lease of life, or a sign of the death of the discipline? Or to put it in more Shakespearean terms, is it a case of:

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”


‘Alas, poor artform, I knew him well…’


p.s. Before the pedants begin commenting, I know that there is no ‘well’ in the original Yorick quote. Wipe that superior little smirk off your faces!

Krapp’s Last Tape

1 10 2010

I am quite a fan of Samuel Beckett. In fact, of the absurd genre in general, but Beckett in particular. His way with words and loaded concepts is amazing, and the depth of emotion he is able to convey (albeit almost exclusively grief or loneliness) is quite remarkable.

I am also quite a fan of Michael Gambon. He is an incredibly captivating actor, with a wrinkled aged face, and sonorous ‘old man’ voice. Truly one of the greats of British Theatre.

So to see the two come together in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Duchess Theatre, was a real treat.

Krapp is a 69 year old man, who has catalogued his life in a series of recordings. He wakes, he listens to one, and reflects on the man he was 30 years ago. It is a thoroughly depressing, morbid piece of theatre. 50 minutes long. 1 actor. A bare set; just an old desk and a single light.

Krapp’s Last Tape is a challenging piece to play and direct. The first twenty minutes or so were conducted in near silence, forcing the actor to make his every move count in order to keep the audience’s attention. Fortunately, Gambon is somewhat of an expert at this. Every move is conducted with such precision – from the raising of his little finger, to the twitch of his cheek. Even when he is just sitting, gazing into space, his resolve and posture is so believable and intense that you cannot look away. You just sit, transfixed.

This is not the first time I’ve seen Gambon play Beckett. I was fortunate enough to catch his production of Endgame a few years ago, and both performances exhibited the same level of commitment, intensity and ability to communicate vast worlds of meaning in a single gesture.

If you’ve never seen Beckett, I would recommend going to check this out. It’s by no means light or fun. But it is under an hour – which you’ll be able to endure. And it is a fine example of Beckett’s style. Shop around and you may well find some £10 tickets, which are very much worth it.