A good night out, entitlement and Agatha Christie

I did a completely rash thing this weekend:  I went to see a show I had no intention of reviewing, that wasn’t for professional reasons of any kind. I went to see a community theatre production of Witness for the Prosecution because my friend was in it, and I wanted to support him.
And on one hand, I had the best night I’ve had in the theatre in ages. On the other, I felt incredibly guilty about going.
The following night I had a choir concert. In 10 years, I’ve always put choir ahead of a lot of things. Singing is one of my few pure ‘hobbies’ and I stubbornly hold onto it. And protect it.
Why do I feel guilty about both then?
Because we’re conditioned in the arts that everything has to be ‘professional’ or it’s somehow less worthy. So, my friend’s show, my own concert, somehow aren’t as ‘worthy’ as other things. Secondly because while I’m doing those things, there are about 3 other productions I’ve had to say no to attending or reviewing, and again there is a guilt attached to that.
Let’s take the latter first. There is this over-arching idea that you must see EVERYTHING.
But by everything, only the super cool, artsy fringe stuff, or the stuff the ‘proper’ theatres are doing. Not having a nice time at a musical, or a comedy gig, or a nice middle of the road touring play. No, only the ‘art’. And you must see it all, and you must be SEEN to see it all.
Yes, ok I’m a bit angry about this. Because I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted with theatre companies, who get annoyed if you can’t see their show. I’m exhausted with the ‘cool kids’ of theatre who go ‘Oh you didn’t see that’ or who go ‘Oh, you went to see Wicked that’s….nice.’ (actually, it was I had a lovely time at that tour, and got green booze, so who is winning artsy kid?).
And what’s all this about? Well, Imposter Syndrome for one. The idea people will say I’m not a ‘proper’ critic, not a ‘proper’ theatre person if I don’t see everything. Add to that an air of competitiveness creeping in with critics, over who sees the most, writes the most, somehow ‘wins’.
Secondly an element of entitlement from theatre companies, and yes the idea that what critics do isn’t either as ‘artistic’ or ‘worthy’ as them.  But that also we should jump to it when summoned to review. And yes, it is in part a payment issue. All of it takes time, and a free ticket doesn’t pay the bills, and there are things to juggle, and priorities to be had.
Beyond being a critic there’s also a nasty undercurrent emerging of ‘being seen’ at productions, rather than seeing productions. Again, the cool kids of theatre will be at everything, being seen to be there. And if you aren’t, if you say ‘I can’t make that one’ somehow you’re less dedicated to the cause, less worthy yourself of being part of it.
To all this, I’d argue quality over quantity. Yes, we should all endeavor to see as wide a range of theatre as possible. Including things outside our taste or comfort zone. But what use are 5 shoddily written reviews in a week to anyone? I’d rather write one really well-considered review, that’s of use to the company and to audiences, moreover, I’d rather see two things in a week and properly engage with them than 5 things and be half-dead-half-awake by number 4 and 5. You are also not entitled to a critic at every production. You are not entitled to a review, and you are not entitled to pass judgment on the quality of critics just because they don’t see your show. And if you’re a critic you don’t get to place an empirical value on other critics work based on the quantity of what they see.
All of that sounds like I don’t like theatre. I LOVE theatre. But you know what sometimes ‘should’ isn’t enough. I’d like to get back to ‘want’ and ‘love’ rather than ‘should’.
Which subconsciously is what I did this weekend. Yes, I could have gone to NTW’s show or another company’s show elsewhere. Artistically, imperially they might have been ‘better’ but actually who are we to say, that just because it’s ‘professional’ it’s ‘better’ that there’s more ‘value’ in that art. And even if we do, sometimes the true value is in the enjoyment it brings. And I know neither of these shows would have brought me the true joy (and I mean that literally) of seeing my friend perform, of knowing he was happy I turned up to support him and the UTTER joy I felt conveying the little old lady behind me sharing thoughts on his performance? Likewise singing Disney songs and giving it my best Galinda with a group of women I love on Saturday night? Do they bring me joy? Every. Single. Week.
And I’m here to say fuck it. Let’s Marie Kondo this shit. If it doesn’t bring me joy, I thank it, but it’s gone. And like the misinterpretations of Marie Kondo, that doesn’t mean chucking everything out the window. It just means examining it and considering what it brings.
And so, I break my rule of never reviewing friends shows, because actually, the following will bring me joy to write. Here’s a mini review:
Witness for the Prosecution is a classic Agatha Christie, which the cast commit to right to the final twist. The production takes what could be a sedate courtroom drama and injects it with a sense of intrigue and suspense. Never letting slip too obvious a clue as to where the story is heading, there were predictably a few gasps as the climax unfolded.
Staged in the historic Paget Rooms, the venue lends itself to the 1950s setting. The set is a beautifully crafted mix of courtroom and period chambers. The design team has excelled in the realistic looking set which created the claustrophobic grandeur of a period courtroom.
Elements of the play unfold in ‘real time’ and it’s a commendation to the actors that they sustain lengthy scenes and at times somewhat dry material, with commitment and a true sense of storytelling. A true ensemble piece all the performers commit to their role in the drama and it’s always a delight to see a production with such a range of performers involved. Standout performances come from Bob Tucker as the charismatic defence Barrister. He commands the stage with a suitable air of authority and delivers his defence speeches in a manner worthy of any television courtroom drama. Alongside him Tom Dyer as the defendant Leonard Vole offers a complex and intriguing performance as the man on trial for murder. Affable and awkwardly charming at first, his performance within a performance as the truth about Vole unfolds, shows an intelligent actor in command of his performance. These two standouts are supported by a cast that understands the need for cohesiveness to pull off the drama, and commit to the story, as much as a real legal case unfolding.
I don’t review Amdram as a rule. I particularly don’t review friends, in Amdram. But I WANTED to review Friday’s play because I enjoyed it so much. And I really enjoyed writing that little review. That nobody was demanding, but I hope a few of the company appreciate seeing.
I obviously won’t be forsaking all reviewing, all theatre going just for Agatha Christie and musicals. But taking a step back and wondering who or what I’m turning up so many nights of my week for, that’s worth thinking about. I thank all the theatre I’ve endured that has perhaps made me a better person (or perhaps a better radar for artistic bullshit) but in future, I’ll be asking first just how much joy it’s going to bring me, and if I’m perhaps better off elsewhere.*
*elsewhere will generally mean my sofa. I love the theatre, but I love my sofa more.  

By Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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