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


It’s SHOWTIME! again for the entertainment buildings of Camberwell

Camberwell Palace, one of Camberwell’s most significant entertainment buildings

On Monday 5th June there’s a fantastic opportunity to hear about Camberwell’s fascinating entertainment history, taking place in a building which in itself is worthy of a visit.

The Golden Goose is a long-established pub which has recently been repurposed to become a 70-seat theatre. The theatre has generously donated its space for this event.

As part of the Camberwell Festival of Arts, seasoned presenter, historian and enthusiast Richard Norman has been invited to give another entertaining presentation under the festival’s theme of SHOWTIME!.

In Richard’s fascinating talk, you’ll discover Camberwell’s contributions to the world of entertainment during the early days of pioneering film production and music hall, variety theatre, and comedy.

With film clips, songs, and music, this special Camberwell Talk promises to be an memorable evening!

Richard Norman is a local historian specialising in buildings designed for entertainment and has given numerous talks at the Victorian and Albert Museum, Tate Modern and many local history societies.

It takes place on Monday 5th June at 7 pm at the Golden Goose Theatre, 146 Camberwell New Rd, SE5 0RR, which is just 10 mins walk from Oval tube or Camberwell Green. Ticket prices are £10 (£7 concessions) and include a complementary glass of wine.

Tickets can be booked at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/…/camberwell-talks…

The talk starts at 7pm and runs about an hour. Don’t miss out on the raffle with prizes at the end of the evening, with all proceeds going to SE5 Forum, which aims to improve the area for benefit of all visitors and residents.

See you there!

Your dapper host for the evening, Mr Richard Norman!

Celebrating painter Walter Sickert’s theatricality in subject and expression

Detail from Gallery of the Old Bedford Theatre, by Walter Sickert

Here’s a great article from the Liverpool Museums website about the great painter Walter Sickert and the theatricality which suffused his paintings. Early training and experience as an actor gave him access to the Music Halls and theatres of his day, and his appreciation for the qualities of light and drama and their ability to highlight the complex relationship between performers and audience inform his work to a significant extent.

Junxia Wang, the author of the piece, is a History of Art PhD student at University of York. Her article is well worth a read.

You can find it here


Discovering local history through performance – an online talk

On Wednesday 15 September at 4.00pm BST the University of Wolverhampton presents an interesting talk on the importance of drama in communities

In “Applying Heritage Theatre: Discovering local history through performance” Dr Darren Daly will examine the use of theatre to engage with and reveal local history. In the course of the talk, he will identify some of the main principles and theatrical forms for communicating history through performance and illustrate how they can reveal hidden histories and narratives.

The lecture will use examples from the University of Wolverhampton’s partnership work with the Black Country Living Museum and Black Country Studies Centre, and a recent project called Hush Now by Feral Productions which investigated the historic Mother and Baby Homes located in the Black Country and the surrounding areas.

The talk is scheduled to last 60 minutes.

Book your free tickets here


Radio: The drama behind the birth of the National Theatre

Broadcast this week on BBC Radio Four, THE NATIONAL is a fascinating listen. Written by Sarah Wooley, this three-part drama about the creation of the National Theatre on London’s South Bank features all the main players: Sir Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan, Lord Goodman, The Lord Chamberlain, Peter Hall and Harold Pinter as well as many others.

You can listen to THE NATIONAL by clicking here

(Please note – users outside the UK may not be able to access BBC online programming – but give it a try anyway!)