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Fringe fare finds critical praise

The answer to the small-scale producer’s perennial cry of “How can I get national critics to my fringe show?” is simple: Open in January.

Despite reviewing a minimum of three shows in an average week, most senior British legit critics still don’t get anywhere near the London fringe. But, at the beginning of the year when most theaters are still running already reviewed Christmas fare, arts editors grow desperate for something to run on their pages. Thus mainstream critics find themselves in venues largely unvisited for the rest of the year.

Wising up to that, the Gate and Wilton’s Music Hall, two of London’s most adventurous smaller venues, risked the expense and complications of rehearsing over the holidays to open smartly thought-through revivals of classics.

What makes Anna Mackmin‘s sharp production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” so arresting is its intensity? She and designer Lez Brotherston have taken a famously small space — each audience row seats about 11 people — and made it smaller. Brotherston blew almost his entire (tiny) budget making a claustrophobic, revolving wooden house in which all the (in)action takes place. It’s a perfect representation of a play about, among other things, the dangers of living in too-close confines with other people.

Without acres of stage space to fill, not only does every movement become significant, it means that pauses for stage moves are removed. Amelia Bullmore‘s complete, uncut translation runs at little more than 90 engrossing minutes.

Using space to evocative advantage is also the thinking behind producing David Mamet‘s version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at Wilton’s. The beautifully dusty grandeur of this crumbling near-ruin of the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall vividly conveys the family’s dwindling estate.

Then, just when they thought they were ahead of the game, the show’s producers were hit by the unwritten law of criticism.

In London, all critics attend one official press night, so, to a degree, their reviews are predicated on what they all happened to see the night before. An OK comedy will seem better if everyone witnessed a dud the night before. Conversely, if, as here, everyone spent Thursday night reveling in Ian Rickson‘s Rolls Royce revival of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” Hugh Fraser‘s nicely conceived but underwhelming “Vanya” looked more than a little under par.

The strongest performance was the Astrov of Ronan Vibert. Charismatic, relaxed and unfussy, his beautifully placed energy grounded every scene.

He’ll need that energy. In addition to his evenings, his daytimes are now full. He’s just started rehearsing across town at the Almeida for its forthcoming production of “Dying for It.”

This is Moira Buffini‘s very free new version of Nikolai Erdman’s satirical comedy “The Suicide.” The production, designed again by Brotherston, was, until the day before rehearsals began, to have been directed by Kathy Burke. Sadly, she has been taken ill. Mercifully, within less than 24 hours, her seat in the director’s chair has been filled by Mackmin.

Legit goes viral

Smaller venues like these have many an audience-building trick up their sleeves. But so far, they’re unlikely to be able to play the more advanced technological games being tested by the West End producers of “Avenue Q” and its marketing company DeWynters.

A special device made by Alterwave and provided by Square Group has been installed at the Noel Coward Theater. It detects passersby with active Bluetooth technology and offers a free video-clip of the show.

In the experiment’s first seven days, 9,595 active Bluetooth devices were detected, and 703 people accepted the video download — an average of 87 people per day. The download can then, of course, be passed on virally.

Together with a new weekday low-price schedule designed to attract the kind of audience that packed its month of previews, “Avenue Q” may be on the way to creating a much younger profile for the West End demographic.

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