Ten Years As A BWW Reviewer - A Personal Reflection

Ten Years As A BWW Reviewer - A Personal Reflection
Stephen Sondheim in Tooting

Ten years ago, I was asked if I fancied writing a review. Since I was going to my local children's theatre anyway, I gave it a go. It came out a little dry and academic, but not much different to the 1000+ that have followed it - thank you Colour House Theatre for getting me off the line with a splendid show.

Soon I was a regular BWW reviewer, initially lots of children's shows (the Unicorn Theatre was a regular haunt) but I'd try anything and, boy oh boy, was I rewarded! This column skims a stone across that great lake of talent, effort and commitment from so many theatre-makers and allows me the indulgence of revisiting a few highlights.

But before all that, what right had I to offer any opinions at all? Well, I'd been an intermittent theatregoer for 25 years already (amongst many nights in the West End and beyond, three consecutive weekends at Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and an unforgettable evening at Cheek by Jowl's legendary all-male As You Like It, which I saw again, 23 years later, as a grainy video). I'd also read hundreds of reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows in The New Yorker - the best grounding for anyone trying to find their voice in arts journalism.

After spending years writing academic curricula, endless quality assurance documentation and tens of thousands of emails, I wanted to write about something I loved and, suddenly, I had the chance. Maybe the dam built up by such dry writing was so high and so thick that, on its breach, so much stuff was let loose that I've never had one moment in which I've had to pause in getting my thoughts down, often more or less drafting my review whilst motorcycling to the day job and then simply typing it in my lunch break. Reviewing has always been a pleasure, never a chore - you've got to love what you do.

Surely one needs more than that? Shakespeare? I'd done Julius Caesar for O-level (B, since you ask) but I could hardly go full Billington and compare Ollie Radagrad's Hamlet with dear old Larry's, could I? Opera? What do I know about that? And as for dance...

Very early on, I decided that I wasn't the exception in the audience, I was the rule. I wrote for an interested punter who wanted to be entertained, possibly provoked and definitely not bored in return for big bucks in the West End, but not so much elsewhere. For a while, I imagined that person sitting next to me - sometimes the figure was real, my son Jesper, who invariably saw stuff I'd missed and received an incomparable education courtesy of those theatre-makers mentioned above. Culture, as Ian Nairn so passionately contested, is neither high nor low - it just is. And we all need it.

You never know what's coming. Shows that have big names, big reputations and big budgets (I'm looking at you American Buffalo) can fall flat, and shows pulled together on black coffee and begged, stolen or borrowed props can fly (Tooting's Pie Shop Sweeney Todd going all the way to Broadway). Politics may once have been the art of the possible, but theatre is always the art of the improbable.

And what could be more improbable than a hit show consisting solely of the verbatim speeches of a community wrenched apart by a serial killer, those words set to music? Alecky Blythe's London Road at the National Theatre remains, eight years on, the single most astonishing night I've witnessed in the stalls. Quite why they adapted it into a sprawling lacklustre film instead of recording its intense claustrophobia in the Cottesloe, I do not know. You really did have to be there.

The Union Theatre is the venue at which I've reviewed more shows than any other, Sasha Regan having piloted its move across Southwark's Union Street without losing its focus on finding forgotten shows and breathing new life into them - often with young, talented casts. For all Lionel Bart's genius, Fings Ain't What They Used To Be seemed a little dated in 2011, when nobody had heard the word Brexit, but now looks like an explainer for the notion of the disenfranchised white working class.

Amongst the big West End megahit musicals, I've seen Hamilton three times and would gladly go thrice more - an experience as much as a show. I'll confess to being somewhat blasé about the big touring productions that one finds at the larger ATG venues, which do what they say on the tin, but seldom surprise. Unlike a sensational production of Kiss Me, Kate at Newbury's Watermill Theatre earlier this year that used supremely gifted actor-musicians to great effect, reminding us - if we needed it - of Cole Porter's incomparable wit.

The classics can be staged anywhere, from open-air urban spaces to poky rooms above pubs, to the most prestigious venues of all. Just ten minutes from my home, in some abandoned industrial units, A Midsummer Night's Dream was conjured; Andrew Scott brought an extraordinary intimate complicity to his Hamlet at the Almeida; and Toneelgroep's sprawling, immersive Roman Tragedies at the Barbican astonished in its confidence and innovation.

Opera and dance have proved an unexpected delight, very early visits converting me for life - Sir Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray and OperaUpClose's take on Madam Butterfly exploding any prejudices I may have harboured. Nothing quite prepares you for the scale of the big house's productions, though - a recent Royal Opera House War and Peace seemingly involving half the serfs on the Steppes.

There's literally dozens more highlights I could er... highlight from the last ten years, but I'll leave you with the production that got me close to tears - not the crocodile tears of a reality TV star's emotional journey, but the ones that come when you're just a little overcome with the sheer, well, humanity of humanity. The National Theatre threw open its doors and let Britain on to its stage for its Pericles, a Britain that was occasionally misshapen, of all ages and none, of heritages traced to here, there and everywhere - and it was a privilege to be there.

So, for the last ten years, my thanks to those theatre-makers who made it happen, but to the unsung heroes too: the front of house and the bar staff, the cleaners and the administrators. Thanks also to the PRs without whom I couldn't do the job and everyone at BroadwayWorld, especially my two editors, Carrie Dunn and Marianka Swain.

And, finally, as they used to say on News at Ten when the news was bearable - thanks to the readers of BWW whom we sometimes ask to read 1000+-word pieces like this one.

Here's to the next decade!

Gary Naylor tweets at @garynaylor999



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