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Why it’s healthy for critics to go to the theatre for pleasure

Assassins. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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For most people who work in the theatre, it is more than a job – it is a way of life. Theatre has a way of working its way into your soul, and I know I am never happier than when I am watching a theatrical performance. Maybe not so much the bad ones, but even they have their place. You need to see the bad ones to be able to really enjoy the good.

Of course, I can afford that luxury, in every sense. Since my theatre visits are not a monthly or yearly treat, but a near-nightly occurrence, I can chalk the bad ones down to experience and look forward to the next one already. And I don’t pay to go the theatre a lot of the time, though by no means all of the time: this week I’m revisiting City of Angels and next week I’m revisiting Assassins, both of which I have paid for. (But I suppose the privilege there was being able to get the tickets at all.)

I’m also re-visiting Anything Goes, which I first saw at Sheffield’s Crucible last December, and which I’m going to catch again this week on its UK tour at New Wimbledon Theatre. It’ll be interesting to see how it is adapted for a proscenium stage after the thrust stage at Sheffield, but I also simply want to sit back and enjoy the riotously funny comic performances I laughed so freely at before.

I’ve reviewed all three of these shows for The Stage first time around (see links above) so this time I’m not on work duty but going purely for my own pleasure. I say “purely”, though of course I may still write about what I see here or on Twitter, for instance.

In some ways the shows I choose to see when I’m not reviewing are an indication of more private passions (or sometimes friendships). I don’t have to see them, but I still want to. (A fellow critic has labelled me “an addicted completist… I recognise the symptoms,” and she should know – she’s one, too.)

In the last week, I’ve also been to a college production of the Broadway musical The Addams Family (I teach at the school) and a three-day run of an excellent production of TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, atmospherically staged at Middle Temple’s chapel (the director is a friend).

I’ve also seen the London transfer of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews from Bath to the St James (I’d seen the original Off-Broadway production and was curious to see how this viciously funny, but very Manhattan, play translated to London) and Whistle Down the Wind at the Union (not Lloyd Webber’s Americanised rewrite of the Mary Hayley Bell story, but the authentically English National Youth Music Theatre production that inspired his version).

And I revisited My Night With Reg on its transfer from the Donmar to the West End’s Apollo, on the same day that I saw the new production of Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville, and they made perfect companion pieces: both are plays about long-term friendship (five gay men in Reg, plus a younger house decorator who joins them, and three women in Di and Viv and Rose), and the accruals of time and life experience.

Seeing things more than once is where the real pleasure of theatre kicks in

But even going to the theatre as often as I do, I still miss a lot. You might think I should see fewer things more than once, but for me that’s when the real pleasure of the theatre kicks in. I can see things I already know I have enjoyed, but see them without the immediate pressure of having to file a report on them afterwards. I can, however, now report that Bad Jews is even better here than it was in New York – played less for laughs, but still outrageously funny. Russell Labey and Richard Taylor’s version of Whistle Down the Wind is much richer and more beautiful than Lloyd Webber’s, with echoes of Britten in its delicate English folk score.

And Robert Hastie’s production of My Night with Reg simply gets richer and more heartbreaking with each viewing (I also saw it twice at the Donmar). The same is also true of Stratford East’s revival of Oh What a Lovely War, which I reviewed for The Stage last year and have rereviewed now that it has returned there in a recast version prior to a national tour.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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