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All theatre great and small – from The Last Ship to Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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I’m in New York for the next month, and of course will be drawing on the hospitality of New York theatre publicists as much as I can – Broadway theatre is, often, simply unaffordable to rank-and-file theatregoers, and certainly those of us who still try to make a living out of writing.

That’s an interesting paradox in itself – critics are sometimes accused of being out of touch with readers, but one thing critics are often not aware of, for obvious reasons, is the simple price of being there in the first place.

Last week I wrote about those who abuse this privilege and have been known to gloat about the shows they actually walk out of, having gone there for free. In the case of the Wall Street Journal’s Joanne Kaufman, one of the shows she admitted to walking out of was The Last Ship.

Yet I started my time in New York by being a regular punter. I bought a ticket to see The Last Ship again, having first seen it in October (before it opened) and loved it.

[pullquote]Lottery tickets are just that: a lottery[/pullquote]

Admittedly, I didn’t buy a $252 premium ticket, or even a $147 ‘regular’ top price ticket, but I went to the box office for the lottery — and picked up a $30 ticket in the front stalls. Lottery tickets are just that – you may win, but you’re more likely to lose. But a sign that a show is in trouble is that, even with its author Sting now in the show through to January 24, there wasn’t much of a line. Every single person who entered the lottery got a ticket at the performance I went to.

The seat I was allocated was off to the extreme stage left, behind an onstage staircase that caused considerable restrictions to my view. So you’re sold a ticket for $30 that is, frankly, not worth much more. (Luckily, I was able to move a few rows further back, into one of the empty side seats there that gave me a better view.)

But here’s the thing: instead of resenting my impaired view and the $30 it had cost me, I actually enjoyed the show even more. A friend is fond of saying there are no bad seats, there are only bad shows – and even if I was watching it at an angle, I was hearing it afresh and basking in its warm musical glow.

Another thing: buying a ticket actually increases your investment in a show — in every sense. The stakes are personal. That means, of course, you also buy the right to walk out (which, as a critic, you are bound not to) but you also want to enjoy it more. I already knew, in this case, that I liked the show a lot – buying a ticket was simply an act of wanting to enjoy it again. And I did.

I then made a different kind of personal investment in Every Brilliant Thing, a show as tiny as The Last Ship is big. I missed this Paines Plough production, premiered at Edinburgh last summer, when it visited London briefly in October as part of a national tour, so was delighted to be at its New York premiere on Sunday at Off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre.

This is a one-man play about a young child dealing with his mother’s severe depression – and his own, in turn – by drawing up a catalogue list of a million brilliant little things that are worth living for.

As someone who has suffered, and continues to suffer from, depression, this is a show with a very special resonance. But I can now add another item to the list of brilliant little things are that are worth staying alive for, and that’s this show itself.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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