I was asked to answer the following: Why theatre? What is it that you love the most about it? What do you miss the most about it? Why do you want to see it come back stronger than ever?
I began attending the theatre years ago as an occasional treat, the way most people do in the general population – every so often, go and see something amusing, entertaining, or inspiring, a special treat. In the last few years that has changed dramatically thanks to the amount of review requests that have been thrown my way: in May 2019, for instance, I was out to some live show or other on every single one of the thirty-one days in that month. Later that year, in August, I wrote forty-nine reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe in twelve days. So, in one sense I’m enjoying lockdown – a chance to recharge my batteries: I think I’ve been running on adrenaline ever since Fringe 2019. It’s also an opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the world of theatre.
Why theatre? Well, I review shows at least partly because I just don’t have the creativity to make shows myself – I hope anyone who has been on the receiving end of a negative review from me can, I hope, take some comfort from the fact that ultimately I couldn’t have done any better myself. Would I have seen nearly as much theatre over the years if I didn’t live in London (or otherwise New York)? Unlikely. Having the West End less than an hour away from my front door is not a privilege I take lightly, particularly when I meet other theatregoers who come from other parts of the country or even overseas to take in a selection of shows during their time in London.
But geographical convenience is only one factor – after all, there are many people in London who weren’t, in more normal times, sat in a different theatre at least four or five times a week, or even four of five times a month. The capital has so much to offer in terms of concerts, gigs, evening courses, social activities, wining and dining – so what it is it about theatre that has kept me obsessed with it for so long? Variety is the spice of life, and I relish the opportunity, as I did back in December, to see a pantomime at New Wimbledon Theatre one night and then a production of The Duchess of Malfi, a seventeenth-century Jacobean tragedy, at the Almeida Theatre in north London the next.
Of course, such pleasure comes at a price. Many theatre regulars will have stories galore about other patrons eating smelly food in the theatre or talking at full conversational volume during a poignant scene in a show. The seats can sometimes be uncomfortable, and the auditorium sometimes too hot. Those small tubs of ice cream are absurdly expensive. And try making notes about a show you’re seeing in a dark room. It doesn’t get any easier, at least not for me, with the passage of time and the wealth of experience.
I find theatre intellectually challenging – and I don’t just mean those overly long plays at the National Theatre. Take, for instance, The Book of Mormon musical. As many of its characters were sticking their middle fingers up at the sky in lament at their impoverished state in ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’, I found myself briefly evaluating whether I was valuing the ‘right’ things in life, or whether I was really spending too much time, energy and effort dealing with what are essentially ‘first world problems’.
In February 2020, I found myself in Southampton with about a dozen other musical theatre lovers who had gathered from across Europe to see, in a touring production, a couple of actors who we have come to appreciate. Many of us ended up appreciating many other members of that particular cast as they were genuinely all very good. We (the theatregoers, that is) had dinner together, we stage doored together – the works. We have all kept in contact ever since (I’ve even hosted a Zoom meeting for a few of us), and when there is more clarity as to when theatres can reopen, we will almost certainly make plans to meet again. So, there’s a social aspect of attending the theatre, and exchanging views on our likes and preferences, and what we all enjoy (as well as what we don’t), that all adds to the theatrical experience.
There is also an immediacy about live theatre that isn’t always achievable in, say, a movie. If someone messes up a line during filming, a director will say, ‘Cut!’ and it’s not a problem – the production team will discard that take, and the line can be done again to perfection. Not so in the theatre. David Suchet likes to tell a story about when he made his Shakespearean debut. In a production of Romeo & Juliet, he had to start a sword fight as soon as he went on stage. But he tripped and in doing so broke his sword. Somewhat panicking, he said, “A sword, a sword!”, at which point someone in the audience heckled, “His kingdom for a sword!” It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen on film or on television – unless, of course, it was scripted, and even then, the effect would be quite different.
Then there’s stagecraft. Anything is possible these days in the movies with the technology available. It’s not uncommon in a theatre review to write about costume design, props, the set, the lighting, and so on. And while a theatrical performance is a group experience, there is also something deeply personal about it: for a couple of hours, you are seeing something unfold in front of you that will never happen in exactly the same way ever again. Almost any actor will tell you that audience reactions, for instance, are different every night. The same set, the same script, the same cast, the same director, the same band, and so on – and yet so very different every night. There’s also a certain amount of creativity that goes into a theatrical production. There is only so much space to work with, even in the largest of theatres. The story must unfold within those parameters.
I feel myself joining the ranks of those who are already saying that theatre is not going to be the same again. This is not a universally negative thing – theatre has evolved ever since the dramas of Ancient Greece – and will undoubtedly continue to do so. It will therefore be very interesting to see quite how theatre will rise again. And as it does so, there’s an opportunity to address some of the prevailing issues in the theatre world, such as the prevalence of premium pricing and – as Musical Theatre Lives In Me has so faithfully and repeatedly pointed out – the relative lack of recognition for understudies and covers.
It is vital that the theatre industry bounces back. For those who work within it, their livelihoods depend on it, and there is much evidence to suggest that other businesses such as hotels and restaurants gain massively from the spending power of theatre audiences. Some shows may not reopen, and I for one need to be careful not to react as though shows didn’t close before Covid-19 came along. But there will be other shows, new shows, different shows, because theatre is a living organism that at its worst does no harm whatsoever and at best brings people together and even makes us think about how we can make the world a better place.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.