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Diary of a theatre addict

Laura Jane Matthewson in Dogfight. Photo: Darren Bell
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Regular readers will know I see a lot of theatre. Too much, I sometimes think. My husband regularly tries to wean me off the relentless schedule, but I can never manage it. I wonder if there’s some sort of 12-step programme for theatre addiction?

Just the other day, a follower on Twitter posted this comment:

The truth is I manage it because I love it. And I think the same is true of pretty much everyone who goes to the theatre for a living. Just the other day Matt Trueman told me, in the midst of our debate about the future of theatre critics:

I realised in Edinburgh that I’m happiest watching theatre and that, for all the workload to make a living, this job allows me to do that.

And its true, it’s hardly like going down a mine and slogging at the coalface to watch live theatre happening most nights. In fact, I never lose sight of the fact that it’s truly a privilege.

But it is important to maintain one’s enthusiasm as much as possible and to stay fresh and receptive to what we are presented with. You inevitably have to be a bit selective about what you see anyway; as I’ve often remarked here, it’s impossible to see everything.

So there are some shows I can’t bear to see at all. I recently saw a posting on a bulletin board, in response to some negative feedback on a show there:

I have reached the stage of theatregoing that I am relieved when someone gives a poor report and I think ‘great, I had no time for it anyway, now I don’t have to stress about fitting it in’ Shame on me…

I know that feeling. Sometimes when I miss an opening and catch up with the reviews of my colleagues instead, a tidal wave of relief washes over me that I’ve managed to dodge the bullet.

Of course, I know I should make up my own mind – can a critic really trust other critics? – but sometimes you can read the signs of something that just won’t be up your street. There’s a show in the West End right now that I’ve not seen simply because the cast photograph outside the theatre feels like it is telling me everything I need to know about the show. That may be wrong, but if that’s how they’re marketing the show, how can it possibly appeal to me?

There are other shows I attend and wish I could flee from in the interval. Unfortunately, it is a cast-iron rule of theatre criticism that you can’t leave, or at least if you do, you cannot express an opinion on what you did see.

So I don’t, but if I’ve bought and paid for a ticket to see something, no such rules apply. I duly walked out of a much acclaimed off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya a couple of years ago. Never mind the great reviews, I didn’t have to be there.

But best of all are the shows I can’t wait to return to. On my birthday recently I chose to celebrate by taking a third visit to Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse. And the following day I continued my theatrical party by seeing My Night with Reg at the Donmar Warehouse. Again.

Someone tweeted a response saying he’d made a New Year’s resolution a few years ago to see only the things he wanted to, not the things he ought to see. Playwright David Eldridge, who I ran into at Southwark Playhouse, tweeted the next morning:

My colleague Paul Taylor bettered me: he’d seen it four times. So yes, we’re both enthusiasts, and unashamedly so. This year I also saw The Lion at the St James Theatre three times.

I go to the theatre so much for work that it becomes a genuine pleasure just to go for the fun of it. I know I’m going to have a great time already. And like all great art, these shows simply grow in depth and resonance the more you see them. You have time to take in smaller details. And to appreciate different performances.

Seeing Dogfight on Friday was to experience a packed house responding to the piece with visceral excitement. Far from the charges of misogyny that have been levelled at the show by some, as I’ve written here previously, Friday’s performance roared their approval when Rose smacked Eddie in the eye – and when Ruth Two Bears pours her drink over her suitor. I’m completely certain that anyone witnessing that night’s show would have seen that it was the women in the show who held the power, and came out on top.

And to return to My Night with Reg on Saturday afternoon was to experience a piercing pain I didn’t feel as fully the first time, for knowing exactly what was coming. The anticipation amplified the pain.

There are other times, of course, where we’re actually summoned back to take another look professionally. And that, too, can be a true pleasure, if there’s a real reason to return and it’s not just the producers trying to get another plug of publicity. Just this week we’ve been back to Forbidden Broadway, now newly transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre.

In this case, the show is constantly evolving. They’ve ditched The Pajama Game sketch, since that show closed last weekend, and in have come two new sketches for Evita and Cats ahead of their arrivals. They’ve also got a brand new cast member, Christina Bianco, who has previously appeared in London in solo cabaret but now blends in seamlessly with the previous three original company members but adds a blast of star quality all of her own.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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