You’ve probably had your fill of reflections for the year 2023 – or otherwise you’ve been good at avoiding such things. Or – full disclosure – I’m just being a bit lazy and can’t be bothered with looking back too comprehensively at what has been, for various reasons, not quite an ‘annus horribilis’ but nonetheless a year I would rather forget. So I turn back to December 2014, and the publication of my first of many reviews for LondonTheatre1 (2,115 were to follow, and yes, there’s more booked in for 2024), a one-act, seventy-minute play at the New Diorama Theatre, just off the Euston Road, called Borges and I. Even then I didn’t mince my words: I am a little miffed at having had to sit through an optometrist examination performed on stage however. Perhaps I am biased having been subjected to such examinations in my own life, but frankly it’s got to rank amongst the most boring pieces of theatre I have ever seen. “Is it better with? Or without? Look at the light in my hand and follow it from left… to right. Can you read out the top line?”
It is with regret that I report I have indeed seen even more boring moments on stage since. I smiled at Clive Davis’ takedown of Lyonesse earlier this year in The Times – a one-star review was followed a few days later by a feature-length article, questioning with ferocity why on earth that show was being put before a paying public audience night after night.
Anyway, every so often, people will want to know how I got to where I am today. Apologies to those who have heard or read all this before, multiple times. I joined a few Facebook groups (well, quite a few, as it happens – most are either defunct or have been taken over by bots and fake news) and on a couple of them, I started putting my opinions on shows there. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had effectively reviewed shows – in those days I was a regular attender of a theatre club run by WhatsOnStage. I joined in February 2009. They still organise what used to be called ‘outings’, for which they would block book a large amount of tickets at discounted group rates, and pass on the savings to their membership.
Back then they regularly had post-show question and answer sessions, which meant not leaving a West End playhouse until after 11pm some nights. I found them quite insightful, and to think that being in a theatre twice a week in those days whilst holding down a nine to five office job was a busy schedule! (Once a week was the norm.) The Q&As are now gone, and even the discounted seats are priced so highly one has to think twice before committing.
I had some disagreements with the chap who took over as Theatre Club manager in 2016 (I think that’s when it was). In 2017 Dan Hunt accused me of irritating every theatre producer in London. I don’t think ‘every’ theatre producer in London knew who I was then, and many of them still don’t. As it happens, Hunt, whose actual name is Daniel Lewis (what else was he lying about?), was handed a 16-month suspended prison sentence and 240 hours of unpaid work, for stealing £80,873 from WhatsOnStage when he stayed on as ticketing manager.
The guy who took over from Hunt, Alun Hood, was a breath of fresh air. I count Alun as a friend these days, and we see each other fairly regularly on the reviewing circuit. But back to 2009, and my theatre calendar then followed more or less the same one as the Theatre Club’s, with WhatsOnStage in those days run by Terri Paddock, who still does Q&As whenever she can. In December 2013, Paddock was dismissed by WhatsOnStage, escorted from the premises. WOS’ parent company at the time, TheaterMania, accused her, amongst other things, of sexual harassment at the St Martin’s Lane branch of Brown’s Restaurant. A legal battle ensued, lasting fifteen months: the Central London Employment Tribunal ruled Paddock was unfairly dismissed. WOS never made any statement to the Theatre Club membership about what happened, and I never bothered asking them: I read all I needed to read, published as it was at the earliest opportunity, by Paddock and other reputable sources.
All that, just to say I credit Terri Paddock for igniting my love of London’s theatre scene.
In 2014, LondonTheatre1 was looking to expand its team of reviewers, and there were a number of shows in December that they had been invited to but while they had plenty of suitable reviewers, the problem at the time was finding people who lived in London and could get to various theatres, sometimes at relatively short notice. I didn’t intend to become ‘lead reviewer’, and I thought I’d get selected whenever they couldn’t find anyone else to go along to review something. But the requests kept coming, and I kept saying yes.
I have no formal journalistic training – I did a business management degree at university, and then went into the world of work. When I started at LondonTheatre1, I was working in the construction sector, very much a job that required clocking in at a certain time, and clocking out at a certain time. I didn’t mind it: 5pm meant 5pm, and if the managing director decided to call time at 4pm on a Friday, nobody challenged him. When I was made redundant in the pandemic (you know the one) in 2020, after having spent four months on furlough, I began searching for work, as you do. I didn’t drive – I still don’t, as you really don’t need to in London, and as I often tell people, by the time you’ve found somewhere to park, you’ll need to get the bus back to the vicinity in which you actually live anyway. And I don’t have the patience to potter around in a motorcar at 20mph or less.
But the only companies hiring at the time were Ocado and Amazon. Whenever a recruitment consultant pitched a job to me that required evening work, I would immediately express reservations, which led to a conversation about my theatre reviewing schedule. I temped for a while for the National Health Service, helping out at Covid vaccination centres in southwest London (you could pick and choose your shifts, take ‘em or leave ‘em) – my usual place was a clinic in Kingston-upon-Thames, which has since closed permanently, with construction work on a block of flats, apparently with affordable housing, to replace it. But I also did shifts at Crystal Palace Football Club and Battersea Arts Centre, before their respective owners and operators needed the venues back for their usual purposes. I also worked from home for the Office for National Statistics, having been headhunted to work on their Covid-19 Infection Survey.
I left long before the survey ended, having put my details forward for an administrator role at the American International Church in central London. It functions as a church on Sunday, and indeed at other times whenever the need arises (Good Friday and Christmas Day being obvious cases in point), and is one of the largest congregations in the Thames North Synod (that is, diocese) of the United Reformed Church. During the week, however, it functions as a rehearsal and audition space, with various rooms rented out to various clients. They were more than happy to accommodate my reviewing schedule, and still are.
Gavin McAlinden, who runs the Acting Gymnasium, which isn’t so much a drama school as a weekly performance workshop, once told me that being a theatre critic means you make a lot of friends, but also that you make a lot of enemies. I like to think I have thick enough skin to handle the keyboard warriors on social media who can dish it out but can’t take it, and I won’t forget anytime soon a man who jabbed his forefinger at me, yelling his head off in the bar of the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham telling me how pissed off he was with me because of my unprofessionalism, not realising the irony of his own incivility whilst making his accusations. I laugh about it now, of course, as I do about a four-star review which I agreed to have taken down because I’d dared to go below the five stars which the production company felt their show should have been given. Oh, and there was a producer who complained to my editor that he “was not impressed” with a two-star review I’d given his show. I wasn’t aware it was the job of critics to ‘impress’ producers!
Still, I was nominated for membership of the Critics’ Circle this year. A vote was taken and for whatever reason, the nomination was accepted. The Circle is not a trade union but an association of critics. Admission to the Circle is at the invitation of the Circle’s Council, and they hold their own awards ceremonies as well as provide a range of opportunities for social interaction amongst critics throughout the year. There are now six sections: books, music, film, drama, dance and visual arts. Earlier this year, Spotlight, a casting directory, came under severe criticism for establishing a ‘premium’ annual subscription in the amount of £294. It scrapped the idea after Equity, the actors’ trade union, instructed its members not to pay the premium rate. But even their ‘standard’ (for want of a better word) membership fee is £183.60 for a year. Membership of the Critics’ Circle costs yours truly the princely sum of £25 per year.
They sent me a welcome letter, a membership card, a membership book (I’m not entirely sure why I need to know where all the Circle’s members live, or claim to live), and a very tiny label pin. But having received all this in the week before Christmas I have no idea how the Circle functions in practice. I’m not sure it’s going to make much difference to my life – my schedule tends to be packed out anyway. But I suppose it’s one thing to look forward to in 2024.
Happy New Year and all that.