John Thaxter, who has died aged 84, was a much-valued reviewer for The Stage for more than two decades.
A lifelong theatre buff, John was taken to the theatre from an early age by his mother, a keen amateur operatic performer, and began writing about the theatre for his school magazine in the 1940s before graduating to his local newspaper in Borehamwood, where he grew up, as an occasional freelance reviewer.
But it was while he was employed by British Telecom as a computer systems designer from 1970 until his retirement in 1986 that he honed his writing and reviewing skills, contributing reviews and theatre articles to The Post Office Magazine, and various BT staff newsletters.
In 1979 he responded to a request in his local newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times – he was then living in Teddington with his second wife, Hilda, and their two children – for a reader to take over reviewing the many local amateur theatre companies. I was editing the paper’s entertainments coverage at the time and, out of the many submissions I received, John’s were far and away the most well-informed and professional.
For the first half of the 1980s, he combined his demanding BT day job with reviewing amateur productions in the evening, often delivering his immaculately-typed copy by hand on his way to work the following morning. Even the most inept performance was always met by constructive, intelligent and fair-minded comment.
In an online interview with Telegraph theatre critic Dominic Cavendish, John said his years reviewing amateurs “gave me an opportunity to see plays I wouldn’t otherwise have seen”.
Long after I left the Richmond paper, John continued as its theatre critic, and established the Richmond Drama Awards (aka the Swan Awards) on behalf of the Richmond and Twickenham Times in the mid-1980s.
When his services were no longer required in Richmond, he began contributing to The British Theatre Guide, What’s On In London and The Stage. His index-linked pension from BT meant he could look upon theatre reviewing as a hobby rather than a vital means of income. So keen was he to record his impressions, that he said he felt denied on the occasions when he’d been to see a show without a commission to review.
The tall, affable, bearded figure became familiar to London theatre managers and PRs, as well as to his colleagues in the Critics’ Circle, of which he was an enthusiastic member. His remarkable memory meant he seldom had to make notes during a performance, and his deafness rarely seemed a barrier to enjoyment or scrutiny. He believed in maintaining a cordial working relationship with his regular ports of call – the Rose, the Orange Tree etc – whether his critical verdict was favourable or not.
Since 2006, John had contributed hundreds of articles to Wikipedia about British performing arts practitioners, both past and present. This often included taking photographs of the living ones which brought his other passion, photography, into useful service.
Asked for advice about becoming a theatre critic, John would keep it simple: “Learn to write and go to the theatre, and then write about going to the theatre. You can’t learn to be a critic at a school of journalism.”
Married three times and twice widowed, John, who was born on February 11, 1927, and died on January 30, 2012, leaves two children, Simon and Emma.