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


BEAM shines light on 29 new musicals in May

After searching the entire UK for new musical talent and watching 265 pitches, Mercury Musical Developments have now announced the 29 new musicals which have been selected to showcase at BEAM2023, which will happen at Oxford Playhouse on Thursday 25th and Friday 26th May, running from 10am to 6pm on both days. One ticket gives you access to both days.

This is great opportunity to support new and emerging work! You can find out more and buy tickets here


Theatres Trust awards environmental sustainability grants to seven more theatres

The latest round of the Theatre Improvement Scheme in association with the Wolfson Foundation has awarded a total of £124,000 in grants to seven theatres.

This round of the scheme has funded small but impactful projects to reduce resource consumption and develop best practice in sustainability. These include replacing bathroom fixtures, fitting solar panels and battery storage, and updating lighting to energy-efficient LEDs.

The theatres receiving funding are:

An Lanntair, Stornoway

Cast, Doncaster

The Garage, Norwich

Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House

New Diorama Theatre, London

Old Fire Station, Oxford

Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle upon Tyne

Congratulations to all the recipients!

The next round of funding applications is now open (closing September 5th), so if your venue wants to improve its sustainability, find out more and apply here


    Listen to “Dearest Squirrel – the John Osborne Letters”

    On Sunday 11th December, BBC Radio 4extra presents a fascinating insight not only into the life of one the UK’s leading mid-century playwrights and his relationships, it’s also an authentic celebration of the lost world of repertory theatre.

    John Osborne meets Pamela Lane in 1951 and within three months the couple are married. So begins an extraordinary love affair that lasts over 30 years.

    A completely fresh insight into the mind of one of the UK’s greatest playwrights, the letters between John Osborne and his first wife, actress Pamela Lane, are also a love letter to a now defunct system of repertory theatre and life in post-war Britain.

    As these letters reveal, soon after their divorce, Osborne and Lane began a mutually supportive, loyal, frequently stormy and sometimes sexually intimate alliance lasting thirty years until Osborne’s death. By the mid- 1980s, they had become closer and more trusting than they had been since their earliest years together.

    ‘You are for me what you always were’, Pamela told him, ‘I am in love with you still’.

    It is, he declared, ‘my fortune to have loved someone for a lifetime’.

    Acerbic, witty, candid and heartbreaking, the letters reveal a unique relationship – troubled, tender and enduring.

    The author, Peter Whitebrook, was born in London and has written and broadcast extensively on the theatre and literature. His co-adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath won a Fringe First Award. His biography of John Osborne was nominated for both the Sheridan Morley Prize for biography and the Theatre Book Prize.

    Read by Simon Shepherd and Amanda Root
    Abridged by Polly Coles
    Producer: Clive Brill

    This omnibus was first broadcast in 5 parts on BBC Radio 4 in 2018. It is a Brill production.

    Broadcast at 6.30am on Sunday December 11th, the 70-minute programme is available for some time after initial broadcast on the BBC IPlayer service. Find it here


    Another Culture Secretary – and another missed opportunity

    Michelle Donelan, MP for Chippenham, Corsham, Melksham, Bradford on Avon and the villages

    So, Michele Donelan is the new Culture Secretary.

    This is the eleventh Culture Secretary we have had in 10 years, so the odds on her being around for a while aren’t good, which may be some consolation for the arts community.

    So let’s take a moment to look at her qualifications for holding the Culture post.

    Er,…..

    Donelan reportedly “dabbled in the media” (as Variety puts it) working in an undisclosed capacity for “That’s LIfe!” and “Marie Claire” magazines, on the Australian editions of these titles. For those of you who haven’t seen them, this is what one of these publications looks like

    This is the Australian version of the magazine that I believe Ms Donelan earlier worked upon in some capacity. Hopefully not as a headline writer. This is an issue from 2019, long after her departure

    She apparently then, briefly worked for The History Channel. Interestingly, her LinkedIn profile for this job shows a disappointing amount of connections, posts or content, as evidenced by the screengrab below. Is it just me, or does 1 connection not appear to be a storming success for a Partnership Marketing Executive?

    Michelle’s LinkedIn account, like her brief job, appears to be history…..

    There followed a small stint for Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment in their marketing department. I wouldn’t be shouting about that myself, but, hey, it takes all sorts.

    Ah! But, of course- she will have been chosen as coming from an area where the arts are in full and vibrant bloom.

    Er,…

    Donelan represents a constituency with no professional theatres, just a 150-seat converted church (whose website seems to have been updated last in June….) and the Neeld Community Centre (200 seats) whose sparse programme is mainly psychics and tribute bands that do the rounds of the UK’s small halls. As to theatre, a quick search of its website reveals this result:

    This screengrab (taken 7 September)from the website of Neeld Community and Arts Centre doesn’t exactly show an abundance of theatre offerings….

    Michelle bellows on her MP website bio “Broadening skills and opportunities is something I am truly passionate about – it is the reason why I entered politics, and it was the theme of my Maiden Speech in Parliament in 2015. I believe an MP’s job should be to knock down barriers, open doors and create opportunities for all.”

    Really? So why, as Minister for Further and Higher Education from 2021-2, did she support and enable the devaluing and de-funding of arts education from our colleges and universities, slashing their funding to “encourage” people into what the Tories see as more “sensible” jobs – like banking, insurance, and factory work.

    Ah, but surely we heard her speaking out against Rishi Sunak, the then-Chancellor, branding arts careers and jobs as “unviable”? Of course we didn’t. Donelan’s actions show her as fully on-board with devaluing and downgrading arts education and crushing the artistic aspirations of young people. Why? To pressure them into a boring 9 to 5 soulless existence which Tories need in order to control our country. Their mantra is ‘keep them poor, keep them sick, keep them stupid and keep them angry’.

    Michelle’s walk hardly chimes with her loudly-trumpeted talk “I believe an MP’s job should be to knock down barriers, open doors and create opportunities for all.” …….

    Here’s the point, folks….

    You may have seen the Labour party social media post where Liz Truss is heard talking down UK workers in a discussion around the productivity gap. It is so depressing to hear our new Prime Minister casually slagging off UK workers behind closed doors. Instead of talking frankly, constructively and passionately as intelligent adults about what the issue is and how we resolve it.

    Let’s be clear. There is absolutely a productivity gap. It has been getting worse since the great financial crash of 2008 and has not recovered – in fact it’s actually got even worse.

    In the lazy and ill-considered manner which has typified governments of the last twelve years, they have freely allowed themselves to be manipulated by education “influencers” and lobbyists who have been pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as their Holy Grail.

    But more recently a wider range of actual educators have realised that they need to push STEAM instead.

    The A?

    Arts.

    Why? Because the arts are about PEOPLE. Made by people, for people. Because the arts give an appreciation and understanding of creativity, they allow creative expression. Enjoyment of and participation in the Arts makes people feel better. Studies have proven this.

    In the UK workforce,there has been a sharp decline over the past 20 years in Management training, more and more staff are expected to learn on the job. For managers this makes their job considerably harder. This then means they struggle to get the best out of their staff. The staff may feel demotivated, unheard, disconnected. And there’s the reason for our productivity gap. The so called “soft skills” – connection, communication, empathy, etc – are not being taught or practised. They are the key to better relationships, and to a happier, more productive workforce.

    Encouraging training and opportunities in, appreciation of and participation in Arts, whatever they are, makes for a happier, healthier, more interested and engaged public- and workforce. Exposure to the Arts gently, carefully, teaches people about communication, empathy, connection, kindness, as well as helping them give voice to feelings they may not otherwise have felt strong enough to explore. The arts explore, debate and celebrate what it is to be human. In short, the arts allow us to understand each other better. And that helps us create better relationships, which is the most complicated thing that humans can do so well – if they are encouraged, supported and shown examples of what this looks like in action. And that is the golden gift from the arts. They teach people how to be people. Better people. Happier people. And hopefully how to feel better about themselves and how to connect with others.

    See my point here?

    That’s how you close the productivity gap.

    Invest in the Arts.

    But don’t expect this Government to understand that, or to do anything about it. Not when it’s easier for the Prime Minister to sneer behind the country’s back about how lazy British workers are.

    The Arts will survive another incapable Culture Minister. But will the country?