Artists have learned quickly during the COVID-19 lockdown and virtual concerts are becoming ever more sophisticated. Catherine Alcorn explains how the new virtual cabaret and music venue The Reservoir Room came about, and why she thinks it’s important that audiences buy tickets. Meanwhile, two UK plays streaming for free this week include the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston, and A Monster Calls from the Old Vic.

The Reservoir Room
Catherine Alcorn and Rodger Corser in The Reservoir Room. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

“Seven weeks ago it was a little idea and now the sign’s up,” says Catherine Alcorn.

The gleaming sign is for The Reservoir Room, a new virtual venue in Paddington Town Hall, Sydney from which variety shows, cabaret and music will be live-streamed every Friday and Saturday night from this weekend.

Alcorn, a vibrant Australian entertainer with plenty of cabaret experience and oodles of get-up-and-go, has joined forces with television/film producer Brian Cobb to establish the new virtual performance space. The Reservoir Room will use four cameras to record shows which will be live streamed using the venue’s own social network platform. When COVID-19 restrictions are further loosened, Alcorn and Cobb hope to invite live audiences in.

“We have got such an incredible team working on it, it has elevated the idea from the first conversation I had with Brian Cobb seven weeks ago, when [COVID-19 restrictions started] happening, which was let’s get three iPhones and live stream with those and that will be it  – and now it’s so far from that,” says Alcorn.

The venue used to be the old Metro Screen studios. When the City of Sydney put it up for tender via its Creative Spaces Initiative, Cobb won the acquisition and has operated it as a green screen studio for around 16 months. However as technology has become more savvy and people have been able to achieve similar effects on their own, Cobb has been seeing a drop in demand.

“Mid-last year he started to consider ways of reactivating the space so he was one of the venues for Sydney Fringe and he started to present some live cabaret and bands, and a couple of plays in there,” says Alcorn.

“He was thinking about how to activate it as a live space at night, with the studio active during the day. He asked me to come on board at the end of last year to book cabaret acts, similar to what I was previously doing at Slide, but I had a massive year last year and I just wasn’t in the zone at that time. So when all of this went down, I said ‘well this is the way to do it – activate it as a streaming venue first and then once the world reopens you can welcome physical audiences into the room.”

And so The Reservoir Room was born. Each Friday, Alcorn and actor Rodger Corser will co-host a weekly variety show called Friday Night Live. On Saturday, artists will perform their own one-hour shows.

“I’m so excited, we are basically bringing variety television back,” says Alcorn of the Friday Night Live sessions. “We will have the Saturday night cabaret and music artists come on the show, and they will do a song and promote their set for the following evening, with other guests in between.”

On Saturday June 6, Tim Draxl will perform his tribute cabaret show The Chet Baker Journey at 7.30pm, followed by Aussie rock legend Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon fame in the first live music slot at 9.30pm. “Phil Jamieson has also got that musical theatre tie as he starred in American Idiot, the Green Day musical, so that’s kind of cool,” says Alcorn.

iOTA in The Reservoir Room. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

Week two will see Ursula Yovich in the 7.30pm cabaret hour, with iOTA doing a live music set at 9.30pm. The following week, Mark Trevorrow will do a cabaret show as himself rather than his comic alter-ego Bob Downe, and Matt Copley in the live music slot.

“Matt Copley is Delta Goodrem’s boyfriend and the guitarist that you see in all of Delta’s online at home videos that she’s doing at the moment, so he will be gathering together some of the industry’s finest – and you never know what celebrities might pop in there!” says Alcorn.

Other artists to appear in the coming weeks include Ben Mingay, Wharf Revue legends Phil Scott and Jonathan Biggins, Erika Heynatz, Ilan Kidron from The Potbelleez, Blake Bowden, Marney McQueen, Verushka Darling, The Divine Miss Bette (aka Alcorn in Bette Midler mode), Ben Gerrard and The James Sarno Quintet.

Audiences will buy tickets for the shows on a pay-what-you-can basis, with prices starting at $5.00. Fifty percent of the box office takings will go to the artists performing. The rest of the money raised will pay for production costs, with a percentage going to the Actor’s Benevolent Fund and Support Act, a charity for artists, crew and music workers.

“No one is working for free on this. Audiences will watch for a fee, and I stand by that because you have to pay. You pay for any other service. We are professionals and we have trained to do what we do. I still don’t understand why our industry is seen as a hobby or something that the general public should just be given like it’s their right. I feel very passionate about that,” says Alcorn.

“Every single person who has come on to this project, the crew as well, has been hit hard by COVID. We will do anything that we can to create a space for us again and I think that, as creatives, we want to feel as if we’ve got a platform to create and to work and to connect and this is hopefully what The Reservoir Room is going to give everyone. And something for audiences too.”

Alcorn is delighted with the incredible talent performing in season one. She is also thrilled that television producer/director Ted Robinson (Good News Week) is working on Friday Night Live as writer and director. “The timing has been right for everyone and I feel like we really have got the most extraordinary team to deliver not just a concert from a couch but a fully-fledged high-end [event] – which will look like a network television show,” says Alcorn. “That’s what comes with Ted Robinson. It feels like we are on the precipice of something quite extraordinary.”

National Theatre at Home: Coriolanus
Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus in the Donmar Warehouse production. Photo @ Johan Persson

Famous English actor Tom Hiddleston who played Loki in the Thor and Avengers films and Jonathan Pine in the television series The Night Manager, naturally drew a sell-out crowd to the Donmar Warehouse in London when he played Coriolanus there in 2014.

What’s more, he delivered the goods, turning in a searing performance in Josie Rourke’s much admired chamber production which was hailed as a “tense, revelatory staging” by Variety, “remarkably resourceful” by The Independent, and “a fast, witty, intelligent production” by The Guardian.

Rourke directed Shakespeare’s epic play of political manipulation and revenge with ingenious economy, staging the searing tragedy on an almost bare stage apart from a row of 12 chair and a towering ladder, to which she added fire balls for the nerve-wracking battle scenes. In one scene, she had Hiddleston’s blood-soaked Coriolanus gasping with pain as he stood under a shower of water after battle.

Hiddleston’s performance was described by critics as having complexity, arrogance, dangerous charisma, and “blazing stellar power”. He portrayed Coriolanus as “a man ultimately destroyed by his own headlong nature” as The Guardian put it; “a man who chooses not to listen rather than someone shouting too loud to hear”, said Variety.

“Making enthralling theatre out of one of Shakespeare’s best-known titles is one thing. It’s an achievement of an altogether higher order to take the austerely forbidding Coriolanus – an argumentative tragedy discussing the demands of politics and the power of the people – and turn it into a theatrical triumph. But that’s exactly what Donmar Warehouse AD Josie Rourke has done,” said Variety. “Thanks to an ideally dovetailed ensemble led by a scorching Tom Hiddleston, tension builds, fills the theatre and never flags throughout the all-consuming evening.”

The production was filmed for NT Live at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 and is available to stream for free from June 4 at 7pm GMT time (June 5 at 4am AEST) until June 11. This is yet another NT Live production I can’t wait to see.

Old Vic: A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls at the Old Vic. Photograph © Manuel Harlan

The Old Vic is about to release a selection of archive recordings of selected productions filmed since Matthew Warchus became Artistic Director in 2015, which will be available for free on the Old Vic’s YouTube channel.

The first to air is A Monster Calls, the Olivier Award-winning production, presented in 2018 by The Old Vic in association with Bristol Old Vic, Jonathan Church Productions and Global Creatures. Based on Patrick Ness’s prize-winning 2011 novel for young adults (which was inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd), the stage adaptation was directed by Sally Cookson.

A Monster Calls tells the story of 13-year old Conor, a lonely child who is bullied at school and trying to cope with the fact that his mother is dying from cancer. His father now lives in the US and his grandmother is terribly strict. As he struggles to cope with the grief, an ancient, giant yew tree visits him at night and tells him three dark stories, if he promises in turn to tell the truth.

The book was made into a film in 2016 in which Liam Neeson provided the voice of the tree. In the stage show, the tree is played by an actor – Stuart Goodwin – who is suspended in tangles of thick rope to convey the gnarly branches.

Conor was played on stage by Matthew Tennyson, who was 30 at the time but looked much younger and received rave reviews. “His awkward, wide-eyed mannerisms, the way he walks around with a drooped head, like he wants to disengage from the world, his hands fidgeting at this sides – it all comes together to create this lost and lonely teenager full of anger and guilt,” said The Stage.

Cookson, who has staged other literary adaptations including Jane Eyre, Peter Pan, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, directs a powerful production of A Monster Calls on a stark white set by Michael Vale, with projections by Dick Straker, and a pulsing live score by Benji Bower.

The Stage found “many moments of piercing, gutting beauty” in the production, while Michael Billington said in his review for The Guardian, that the strength of the story is it “blends adolescent reality with fairytale fantasy”. Billington was impressed by the wit and elegance of the staging but “couldn’t share the snuffles and sobs around me at the story’s end”. Time Out, however, advised audiences to “Bring hankies, and plenty of them.”

A Monster Calls takes a while to warm up, but ultimately locks into the searing emotional clarity of the book,” said Time Out. “It is unflinching in its assertion that lying to children about death can be more damaging than the truth, and that the stories we tell each other cannot all have happy endings. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, then just brace yourself for tears.”

The production, featuring the original cast, will stream from Friday June 5 at 7pm BST (Saturday June 6 at 4am AEST) until Thursday 11 June (June 12 AEST).