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Dave Fargnoli: Winning Critic Search has been strange and overwhelming

The Red Lion at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton The finalists in last year's Critic Search were asked to review The Red Lion at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Deadlines are lifesavers. As someone who tends to overthink things, I have always benefited from having a clearly defined goal – and a strict word count has never hurt, either.

Just under a year ago, I saw The Vote at the Donmar. Written and staged to coincide with the general election, it had an urgent sense of immediacy, and featured a loudly ticking clock. The clock reminded me about an important upcoming deadline I had read about on Twitter, favourited, and then filed away for later. Suddenly I was running out of later, and so that night I sat down to write a short review as an entry to The Stage’s Critic Search competition. After three months and three rounds, I was fortunate enough to be declared the winner. As cliched as it might sound, winning that competition has been life-changing for me, in some obvious, and some less obvious, ways.

When I entered, I did already have some previous reviewing experience. Being originally from Edinburgh, I am used to spending every August immersed in the Edinburgh Fringe. I had been taught some essential critical skills while covering a dizzying overabundance of shows each year for the daily festival guide Three Weeks – my first exposure to the world of harrowingly brief deadlines and compact word counts. I also knew what it was like on the other side of the fence, having had my own plays reviewed in that same frantic environment. There might be no better training for a critic than obsessively pouring over someone else’s review of your work. At the very least, it lets you know how hard it is to craft words that can stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

Last year, I had the particularly strange experience of seeing my most recent play (Heartlands, with Urban Fox Theatre Company) reviewed by The Stage just weeks after it was announced that I would soon be joining the team myself. Waiting for that review to be published was significantly more tense than usual, and being well received felt like an especially important validation.

Along with ‘strange,’ the word I use most often to describe my experiences with Critic Search is ‘overwhelming’, but I mean them both in the most positive way. At one point, I remember balancing my laptop on a precarious pile of books, while I sat on the floor mentally rehearsing a video message as part of my final-round entry. In that brief recording, I talked about my reasons for pursuing the unlikely career combination of playwright and critic. I said then that the only way to do either of those things well is to see as many plays as you possibly can. While I will admit now that there is probably more to it to than that, I still feel the same need to jump in at the deep end of things. That is exactly what happened when the final results were revealed in August.

Following the announcement, there were a few thrilling days of professional interest, interview requests, and the disconcerting experience of seeing my photograph pop up unexpectedly on social media. Although it passed in a blur, I am still regularly struck by the profound impact all of this had on me, personally and professionally. It was at once enormously confidence-boosting and sincerely humbling, especially considering the quality of the other entrants.

Quite smoothly and naturally – though it felt a little unreal at the time – I found myself becoming part of a conversation with writers whose work I intensely admired and respected. I received some deeply encouraging words of support from inside the industry, and some remarkably incisive mentoring from Matt Trueman, whose generous advice widened my understanding of the potential scope of a good review. Learning to get beyond a show’s superficial features and consider every aspect of a production – be it direction, design or the company’s own history – has opened up new approaches for me to respond to the work, and given greater depth to my writing.

I am yet to encounter a ‘typical’ play. It seems that everything I have seen recently, good or bad, has presented me with some unexpected angle. I love the feeling of emerging from a challenging performance blinking and bewildered and, for those first few moments at least, not knowing how I’m going to go about expressing what I have just seen in a few concise words. Reviewing offers the chance to visit venues you’ve never heard of, and see work by companies you might never otherwise encounter. In the past year I have attended pantomimes and ice shows, bleak dramas and musicals. I have learnt that the process of research and preparation can be intensely rewarding in itself – a chance to take on a different perspective, or broaden my theatrical horizons. It is natural to be permanently curious, to need to know more about this art form that we are passionate about. It is natural that any writer strives to constantly improve, to make their prose more crisp and entertaining, to be more critical of their own output than of anyone else’s. To be fully immersed. To be fully engaged.

Above all, I have found that winning Critic Search has been an unparalleled springboard into the industry. As with every creative career, chances to break in to criticism don’t come along too often, and it’s even rarer that you’ll be paid for the privilege. The promise of ongoing reviewing work – not forgetting the prize’s considerable cash component – became a major factor in my making the transition away from unrelated day jobs, and into a situation where I am able to focus fully on writing.

Partly, that has come about by learning to recognise and follow up other potential career prospects. These seem to present themselves more often than you might expect, especially on press nights, where critics and industry insiders of all stripes find themselves loitering in foyers. I have been introduced to more than one person who went on to have a real impact on my developing career while hovering in a theatre bar before a show. I have also been able to approach other publications and other theatremakers, and begun to have productive conversations that would never have come about otherwise.

For me, 2015 was a year of constantly raising my game, of rising to challenges, and of trying to say yes to any opportunity that came along. It was a year of taking on more than I might be comfortable with, and of finally getting in at the deep end. I am still trying to do exactly that, and I still find it impossible to talk about all of this without becoming effusive, without sounding like I’m writing a love letter. The truth is, as a critic, as a playwright, and most of all as someone who loves the theatre, writing for the world’s oldest and best theatre publication is a privilege as much as a pleasure. I could go on and on, but I have a deadline to meet.

Dave Fargnoli is a Scottish playwright and theatre critic

Think you could be the next top theatre critic? Enter The Stage Critic Search here

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