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Repeat viewings – for work and my own pleasure

Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Lavinia), William Houston (Titus) and Dyfan Dwyfor (Lucius) in Titus Andronicus. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Of course critics go to the theatre a lot. It’s our job, after all. But we also (most of us, anyway) love the theatre; it’s why we do it. And you can’t keep some of us away. I regularly go to the theatre six or even seven nights a week – and might even throw in a matinee, too, or a reading or workshop.

It’s not strictly speaking necessary to do my job: you can keep abreast of the major London openings across two or three evenings a week, and then throw in a fringe show on another night, and perhaps go further afield for one more, to get a fairly well-rounded portrait of what’s happening. That takes you up to five, which seems to me to be a reasonable number; most people, after all, work five days a week, so where’s the hardship in going out on five nights a week? (Of course, for many critics nowadays reviewing shows is only part of a portfolio of journalistic interests that have them filing other copy by day, but that’s another story).

But to actually engage in the theatre and not just observe it from a safe distance takes real immersion, and I’m nothing if not passionate. A well-known West End theatre producer recently told me on Twitter, “Time you got a life”, as I wrote here, after I made a disparaging comment about one of his shows. But I do have a life already; it just happens to revolve around the theatre.

I even sometimes go on my off-duty nights, and that’s when the theatre, for me, can be all about pleasure. On these occasions, I typically see something I’ve seen before and already love. I can leave my notebook safely tucked up in my bag and simply do what the rest of the audience do: namely sit back and enjoy. Even that phrase says it all: when you’re reviewing, you tend to sit forward, rather than back. (I know I’m not enjoying something when I find myself slumping back).

Of course, being a return visitor, I start at an advantage – I already know I’ve enjoyed the production before. And instead of having to think about coming to an opinion, I’ve already declared mine. Not that one concentrates any less fully, or that you can quieten the critical voice entirely.

With so much to see out there, can I actually afford the time to indulge in repeats like this, though? As it happens, over the bank holiday weekend I returned to two productions I’ve seen previously: one because it has been newly revived,eight years after it was first produced; another because it has transferred to the West End after I saw it first at Hampstead Theatre.

Both proved newly rewarding and enriching. But the first was still work – I was reviewing it with an all-new cast, whereas seeing the second again was entirely my own choice. And they provided an instructive lesson in why it can be so great to go back again.

When Lucy Bailey’s bold, bleak take on Titus Andronicus first opened at the Globe in 2006, it became instantly notorious for the audience casualties that resulted. Seeing it again on Sunday night, I counted at least seven people amongst the groundlings alone having to be carried out – and heard the thud of someone fainting in the gallery above mine, too. One of the pleasures of seeing it again was to be able to watch the audience as much as the show. And though William Houston proved much more mannered in the title role than Douglas Hodge originally, this truly immersive staging – which regularly spills beyond the stage into the auditorium – is a Globe classic. It engages with the space, the play and the audience in perfect complicity and complexity.

Two nights earlier, I paid a purely social call on Good People – a play all about the calls a lonely, newly unemployed single mother makes on a former partner. And I was riveted all over again by David Lindsay-Abaire’s incredibly powerful and moving play. Imelda Staunton is giving one of the performances of the year in it. Even though I was not there to review it, I have to say now that it is truly unmissable.


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