All the world’s on stage again so where to go to for insight into what to see and why?
Podcasts, of course.
Let’s start with Literally! With Rob Lowe. An hour-long conversation between the most swoonable actor in the world who we’ve all forgotten, and everyone he knows and likes, from Alec Baldwin and Oprah Winfrey to St Elmo’s Fire co-star Demi Moore. It’s a wonderful and eye-opening listen. Lowe combines the enthusiasm and curiosity of the best interviewers with a knowledge and experience that makes conversation flow until the cup spilleth over. The blue lighting of a show is ‘very Bar-Mitzvah limousine’, he and actor Jason Alexander agree; they can also, incredibly, dissect the stage performances of Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Angela Lansbury and John Malkovich, having between them seen all of them in the theatre. Lowe’s ‘luck’ is that he happens to be friends or neighbours or have starred with everyone he interviews: it allows for an intimacy that interviews rarely achieve.
It’s why UK equivalents of Literally! With Rob Lowe have been doing similar business at the box office: David Tennant’s hour-long exchanges with the likes of Judi Dench, Olivia Colman and Tim Minchin ran throughout the lockdowns, as did Sue Perkins’s An hour or so with… Ruby Wax, Emma Thompson, etc. In each case, the shows worked because a hugely charismatic and knowledgeable person — or practitioner — was interrogating a fellow thesp about their trade. No newsroom-trained presenter can match that (Radio 4, weirdly, still doesn’t get this, with Front Row, which sounds as if it’s in a bit of a time warp). Will these heart-to-hearts continue once A-list actors get their parts back? If the demand, and advertisers, are there, hopefully they will.
While not a name like the above, Lucy Eaton (of BBC’s Zoom series Staged) developed a series of podcasts during lockdown called Hear Me Out in which she asks an actor to name their favourite monologue, and they discuss it, before the audience hears the speech. This is a really great show for anyone who likes literature and culture. Again, it’s an exchange between two actors on their craft, but it’s a more honed listen: it’s what podcasts should be for — allowing a deeper, nerdier listen than your average radio programme can.
Which takes us nicely to Jim & Tomic’s Musical Theatre Happy Hour. Nobody, except a hardcore musicals fan, will get through this. But if you are one, it’s compelling stuff. Tommy, in Chicago, and Jimi, in Scotland, get stuck into a musical — either current or historic — and wax lyrical on its strengths and weaknesses. Both are obsessed with musicals and both are, sort of, in the business (they write, direct and teach). They have a lovely and funny relationship and the knowledge at their fingertips is dizzying. Sometimes their conversation nears two hours but it doesn’t even matter (they can dip in and out of your day). As a package, it’s winning.
So, I’m surprised to say, is Audible’s new offering, a book club with Graham Norton. Not being either a fan of book clubs or Graham Norton, I was surprised to find that this is a very good listen. All the razzle dazzle is stripped back to what Norton does best — good chat. And on a subject which, clearly, he is now very into: books (he has written three novels in recent years). Arming himself with a books critic or Booker judge and a fellow novelist, they discuss a book that we firstly hear about from its author.
As well as finding out the usual stuff like why the writer wrote the book, Norton also asks things like what is the first book the writer ever bought and which book they wish they could have written. It makes the conversation wider than your standard literary show tends to be. I don’t think Norton’s panel need to mark books out of ten, neither do his public contributors need to be ‘clubbers’, but these efforts to popularise shouldn’t trick you into thinking this is anything but a dense and extremely satisfying interrogation of books, old and new.
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