My reviewing days were the result of a sudden enthusiastic response made at a lunch given by Richard Ingrams who was thinking of starting a new magazine, now an established success, called the Oldie. He was pondering on whom he should get to review exhibitions, plays, concerts, books etc., at which, three glasses of wine having gone down, I thrust myself forward. That was seventeen or so years ago. Having once been a child actress in Children’s Hour, a juvenile member of the Liverpool Playhouse company, followed by adult work in various other repertory theatres up and down the country, it would seem I was qualified for such a job – but not so. I have found it very difficult to criticise a production or its actors, on the grounds that they’re all doing their best and who am I to pull them to bits? It’s different, of course, if I’m dealing with a Lloyd Webber musical, as then, whether I think it good or bad, my opinion won’t matter a damn – either to Mr. Webber or to the box office.
Ideally, a theatrical experience should take one out of onself, though such a feat depends on the preferences of the onlooker. Some spectators respond only to acting or content, others to music or spectacle. It doesn’t really matter which ingredient performs the miracle, just so long as the water is turned into wine. For myself I like almost anything, as long as it’s quite short. I also, perhaps even more, enjoy anecdotes to do with the early life of actors; it makes you look at them differently. For instance, in the June of 1993 I went to see a play with the ungrammatical title of Then There Was A Star Danced all about that great actress Ellen Terry, whom, according to George Bernard Shaw, every man in the country, including himself, had been in love with. She made her debut at the age of eight in a drama equally peculiarly called The Spirit of the Mustard Pot and was sitting in the green-room waiting for her entrance, possibly in a glass jar, when an elderly actor gasped out from his chair by the fire, ‘Little Nellie, little Nellie’ and promptly died. Terry had three marriages, all of them unhappy, retired into the country for years and might never have returned to the stage if it hadn’t been for some man who, leaping over a hedge on horseback and recognising her, cried out, ‘Little Nellie, little Nellie, come back to us’.
What actors think about the play in which they perform is even more stimulating. For instance, two days after I went to see Home by David Storey, first shown twenty-four years before at the Royal Court with Gielgud and Richardson in the leading roles, I happened to catch a television profile of Richardson in which, discussing the plot, he remarked, ‘Johnny and I didn’t understand a word of it.’ Come to think of it, neither did I. It was apparently so spell-binding the first time shown that on the second night a mouse wandered onto the stage, sniffed a bit, then scurried off.
A play after all these years that I remember as truly moving was Wallenstein by Friedrich von Schiller, though I’m at a loss to explain why exactly, as it was in blank verse. Perhaps it had something to do with childhood and learning poetry at school. It’s words that do it. Nowadays we’re so used to seeing sentimental plays devoid of sentiment, so used to sitcoms, so surfeited on pap, that great drama jars one to the bone.
Most reviewers go to a first night performance and are always guaranteed a good seat, but not me. For one thing the Oldie is a monthly publication so unless the show is a musical it’s usually off before my piece can be read. Straight plays no longer run for months, which is puzzling because I haven’t yet attended a theatre which wasn’t almost full. Perhaps too many plays are being written.
Last week I went to review Ibsen’s Ghosts and my bus was hampered by so many roadworks that I arrived at the theatre five minutes after the curtain was due to rise. You can understand my relief when I saw crowds of people still queuing at the box office. I bought a programme but before I could peruse it the lights were lowered.
Ghosts is about the misery and bravery of a wife trapped in a bad marriage. Though her surroundings are affluent, her happiness and self-esteem are povertystricken. Imagine my astonishment when I gazed at the stage and witnessed a horde of little children prancing about singing ‘Food, Glorious Food’. I’d gone into the wrong theatre and was watching Oliver!
Seeing so many plays might be thought of as wonderful, particularly by those who go to the theatre only once or twice a year, but then one should remember that old adage: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly; let us just say that a surfeit of viewing can dim the glorious sparkle of the footlights.