Review: A CRITICAL STAGE

A CRITICAL STAGE at the Tabard Theatre, Jeremy Booth and Barbara Wilshere.
Photo by Charles Flint courtesy of Tabard website

IN BRIEF: Lovingly-researched and well-crafted celebration of theatre critic James Agate winningly focuses on depth rather than breadth, aided by dedicated performances

The relationship between theatre practitioners, theatre critics and audiences has always been a spiky one. The critic’s view is often the one deferred to by the public when deciding what to see and what to avoid. Their power in making or breaking productions is undeniable though often over-stated. Rarely as publicly-recognised or as feted as the stars upon the stage, critics themselves tend to be forgotten after their work ceases. James Agate was a glorious exception to this – a larger than life character with a genuine love of life, people- and his work.

Only rarely are critics themselves critiqued, but the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Theatre and Performance put it succinctly when they described James Agate thus: “his criticism consequently is verbose and self-indulgent but hugely entertaining and revealing”

A CRITICAL STAGE is writer/director Gareth Armstrong’s affectionate remembrance of one of the mid-20th century’s most respected theatre critics, James Agate. Now largely forgotten outside (or even inside) theatre circles, this carefully-researched play weaves together choice excepts from his writing to create a portrait of the writer as a public figure, playing the part, always aware that he is writing his own lines, in a delicate balance between praise and paranoia that he might miss “the next big thing”. Armstrong’s sprightly, zesty dialogue sparkles and crackles to successfully paint for us a three-dimensional portrait of Agate, inconsistencies and all, into something which really comes alive under the author’s own direction and studied performances. Thankfully not simply an illustrated timeline, as biographical plays can often be reduced to, A CRITICAL STAGE plays it smart by focusing closely on a short period of time and allows its characters to fully inhabit the space created.

Set in wartime London in 1942, the play covers a perilous time in both the career of Agate, at that time chief theatre critic for The Sunday Times, and his secretary “of sorts” Leo, a gifted piano teacher and soloist – a gay Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis. Leo’s questionable refugee status which threatens his safety, and Agate’s indiscretions which threaten to derail his critic’s job (“I have to work- it defines me”) provide tensions for each man to navigate as the play uncovers the stories behind the men’s current predicaments. Outsiders both, their shared gayness creates a camaraderie against a hostile world.

The appearance of actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, railing at Agate’s critical demolition of her performance as Lady Macbeth (“You shit” she explodes (in a delightful entry line). “It’s my job” he retorts), broadens the focus to fully involve Leo and later flares up into a fascinating discussion between Gwen and Agate as to the value of critics, and whether critics are artists or tradesmen – which is pointed, engaging and absorbing.

This smooth four-hander has a strong cast. Jeremy Booth gives a full-bodied incarnation of Agate, showing us hints of the kindly, principled man behind the public façade of a belligerent, laser-confident, driven man of the theatre who prefers his private side to be kept private. David Acton plays put-upon Leo with twitchy finesse, giving as good as he gets, his blood-chilling monologue about his brush with Nazism provoking his “terror” which curtailed his public performances – which authentically cuts across time. Barbara Wilshere plays Gwen with a feisty humanity, seeing through Agate’s façade; although there is an underlying affection, but she is not intimidated by his barbs. Smike, Agate’s compliant yet resourceful “houseboy” (Sam Hill) rounds out the cast.

Everything here is employed with precision – from words (Peter, the caretaker’s sickly son who Agate buys presents for and spends time with, described by Agate as “completely innocent”) to shocks (bondage, exploding bombs),  props (a missing pair of trousers, a silver winner’s cup) and more.

Words, Agate’s critical components, are rightfully respected and used deftly here. Writer of 40 books, Agate bats away criticism of his solitary play credit as having “divided opinion” with all the aplomb of a contemporary Coward or a modern spin doctor. As to his appearance as only the second guest on the fledgling Desert Island Discs radio programme with its scripted interjections between the records, he confides to Gwen: “It’s the BBC- we daren’t risk a real conversation”.

There is little sense of the real world of 1942 intruding into the theatrical world that these characters inhabit, apart from an unexploded bomb and a call for “Gin and It” resulting in a concoction of whatever alcohol happened to be available. This is helpful in allowing us to focus upon the characters themselves.

It is clear that we are in experienced hands, from the smart construction (a very effective “shock” opening and first-act curtain) to the clever revisiting of a background running gag, this is assured writing which knows its own value but never allows itself to lose focus. There’s a lot of fun to be had, a lot to discover and much to appreciate in this play.

Concluding as Peter is laid to rest, Agate fends off competition and Leo overcomes his terror, the critical stage recedes as the characters sit back to listen to Agate’s broadcast as the theme of Desert Island Discs reassuringly wafts across the stage.

Agate’s concern about his legacy – a common theme, especially with gay men – has been assuaged to a considerable degree thanks to this careful and affectionate play which not only educates and celebrates his career as a passionate advocate of theatre, but also of a fascinating, flawed character of deep principle and humanity.

A CRITICAL STAGE ran at the Theatre at the Tabard, Chiswick, London from 31 May to 17 June 2023


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