Thursday, 22 June 2017

Roller Diner

Roller Diner is a musical comedy set in an American diner in the midlands. And it’s about trafficking. Which made me really excited when I heard about it.

It’s setting is a pretty muddling sort of place: with the owner, the daughter, and her boyfriend all feeling a bit caught in their garish but underseasoned (*real review wordplay*) lives, until Marika, who claims to be a Polish immigrant looking for work, turns up and takes the place over.

It was the winner of the Verity Bargate Award for New Writing and it fits into that sweet spot Soho Theatre have of comedy/theatre/cabaret hybrids that don’t quite fit anywhere but are really exciting when they work. And this sounded ambitious. Which it was.

But it seemed to me that there was a really interesting play in need of a stronger sense of itself. It deals with xenophobia and little-Englanders with a deft hand and has some really delightful quirks (*spoiler* one of the characters turns out to be an alien who then returns to Mars, which is completely bonkers but magic) but overall it’s got too many formal tricks going on: the performances veer between slapstick comedy and sentimental anxt; the fourth wall goes up and down without any sense of clarity or consistency; we are never clear whether Marika’s character is a satire of British ideas of Eastern Europeans (she keeps seemingly casting a spell on the diner owner) or just a hole at the centre of the piece.

I also (and this feels odd from someone so completely on-board with musicals) really couldn’t understand why it was a musical? I think it gained little and perhaps lost much. The score was pretty hokey and ill-formed and the songs didn’t open up the experience so much as continually grind it to a halt to have a bit of silly singing (again: I like musicals. I really do. I just don’t think this really utilises the form effectively.)

I particularly liked Ricky Oakley as the boyfriend P.J. – boy, can that actor pull a really funny face – and the performances are all pretty strong. The occasionally wobbly accent from Lucy McCormick (in whose show Triple Threat I practically vomited with admiration, just so we’re clear I’ve nothing against her) just made me wonder why, considering the subject-matter, they would not have cast an actress from Eastern Europe to play this part, but I guess they must have their reasons. It troubled me a bit, though.

Overall, I wish I was able to be more vociferously praising: it’s the sort of misshapen show I have a real soft-spot for, but by the final scene I was a little frustrated by its blunt machinations and its politics didn’t convince me they weren’t a bit worrisome in their underdevelopment.

Oh, and there was zero rollerskating. Zero. I know. I thought so too.

On Why I Shouldn't Have To Pay: Icky vs. Shoddy

The Fringe accredited me this week. Which means they’ll do everything to support me, apart from the one useful thing they might have done: offered free tickets to shows. And I whinged about it on Twitter.

And, as ever, Andrew Haydon was my knight in shining Manchester and was lovely and supportive. And then someone said they didn’t know why the media would even expect free tickets, that they’d never understood it. And that’s when it all started.

I bowed out of the succeeding conversation: replies came and went and I didn’t want to get into it, really. But not because I wasn’t interested. And not because I didn’t disagree with the premise. But because the more I dug into the reason why I think it’s probably important that “the media” get their tickets comped by theatres, the more I felt like my arguments were either icky or shoddy.

So, here’s a game of icky vs. shoddy played out in the form of a dialogue in my head:

ME: I like theatre, I go see far more than the average person, I write about it afterwards. I will have to go see less stuff, write about less stuff, if I have to buy my own tickets. That would be bad.

ALSO ME: Wah wah. Loads of people want to be able to go see every show they want to but they can’t because they have to pay, why is that fair?

ME: Well, they don’t write about it afterwards, do they?

ALSO ME: They do, they just do it on Twitter.

ME: So, it’s a problem of social media turning every act of opinion into unpaid labour?

ALSO ME: I don’t understand why you insist on politicising everything, you crumbling Marxist zealot.

ME: Yes.

ALSO ME: So, you conceive of reviewing as a service for which you deserve to be paid a nominal fee?

ME: Sure.

ALSO ME: Monosyllabic, aren't we? So, if this is what theatre reviewing is relegated to – by your own definition, a service reviewers provide for theatres for a fee, small or otherwise, in the form of free spectatorship – then is this not progress towards the sort of activity your (my) new BFFs at the Fringe are taking part in, where reviewing becomes no more active an agent in theatre than an extension of the marketing department.

ME: I think everyone’s pretty tired of this conceit.

ALSO ALSO ME: We are. You’re right.


I really believe in criticism. That’s why the strength of this counterargument really worried me.

Critical engagement with theatre, at its best, is a dialogic relationship, where work that is struggling to find a voice gets amplified, work that is receiving a lack of scrutiny is put into focus, and, perhaps most importantly, performance practice, dewy and ephemeral, finds a record.

Good press helps companies make applications down the line, helps writers, directors, actors get gigs because they can say “hey, look at this insubstantial proof of my worth”. Press, for small companies, validates their existence. This reason, along with interest in theatre, is the primary reason I think this blog is worth anything at all. That’s good.

But it also sells tickets. This is the only reason theatres pay for it. The PR or Marketing departments organise it because it gets bums on seats. Which is fine. I guess.

And that’s it. That’s the reason. It doesn’t negate the validity of what you can do but it’s a pretty disturbing conclusion to be coming to and as fewer and fewer traditional news sources defend their arts coverage, there are fewer and fewer people who would be able to, even if they wanted to, pay for their own tickets.

Reviewing online – outside of those who are just doing it out of good grace and the love of it – I include myself in that number – is necessarily going to become pulled closer and closer into an extension of a sales department.

You already feel it: good reviews – AWFUL reviews excepted – get shared way more favorably than tepid ones by theatres. Caveated reviews don’t get clicks. Clicks sell adverts. Adverts keep people doing the writing of reviews.

So, that sort of stupid comment on Twitter ends up making me feel a bit sick. Because this blog and my accreditation don’t matter, of course they don’t. But it worries me that the best argument I can come up with for why they should give me free tickets is because I’ll help sell tickets. Because that’s shit.

So, please, give us some hope and offer me another reason. Point out a theatre working with reviewers to help theatre ecology and not just get another shmuck to buy a ticket to This House. Please.

Also, obviously, it goes without saying, the Fringe can go fuck themselves.

P.S. This is all without even thinking about the argument about why the price of the ticket is actually a ridiculous payment for labour in the first place, because I'm tired and cross and it's so fucking hot and if you want to read about that you should go read Duška's brilliant book about how we're all simultaneously fucked and not fucked right now. Actually, just do that anyway because I worry I basically said next to nothing in this post and she says loads of interest in that book.