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Mark Shenton: My new discoveries and neglected old haunts for 2018

Barn Theatre, Cirencester and the Menier Chocolate Factory, London Barn Theatre, Cirencester and the Menier Chocolate Factory, London
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Around this time of year, when critics start compiling their best of the year lists and then thinking about their resolutions for the New Year, I look back on what I’ve seen and where. What stands out for me as much as what I have seen, though, from more than 300 shows across the year, is where I have not been.

There are only a finite number of shows you can see in any given week – outside of the Edinburgh Fringe, where shows play all day, you can only really effectively see around six or seven across the entire week (although I have been known, on occasion, to squeeze in 12 – that’s every evening plus five matinees).

‘There was a period not too long ago, for instance, when the Menier Chocolate Factory was unmissable’

But, it’s not about volume, it’s about quality. And each critic has to make a judgement call, based on previous experience and expectation, about which shows are likely to be more interesting than others.

Some theatres come more into (and out of) focus at various times. There was a period not too long ago, for instance, when the Menier Chocolate Factory was unmissable: a miracle powerhouse, producing show after show that went on to the West End and, on more than one occasion, Broadway as well.

The Stage Awards 2019 shortlist: London theatre of the year

Yet, I’ve managed to miss four of its last five shows. That’s partly been about my own scheduling – if you miss an opening, it’s hard to play catch-up sometimes – but also about choice: I felt there was no urgent need to catch Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Gronholm Method, Spamilton or the current Fiddler on the Roof. (I’d already seen Spamilton in New York and recently saw an overwhelmingly authentic Fiddler in New York, performed in Yiddish, that transfers to Off-Broadway in February). I hope that the Menier – a theatre right on my home doorstep, as it happens – comes back on to my itinerary in 2019, but for now there seem to me to be more interesting London theatres to visit instead.

There are a few venues I consciously and consistently avoid, although this is more on the grounds of physical discomfort than the work being staged: the King’s Head, Trafalgar Studios 2 and Soho Theatre, for example.

‘The real joy for me is discovering a new space that you’ve never been to before’

I’ve also still never been to the Yard or Chickenshed, even though it was one of my New Year’s resolutions for this year. Both consistently garner good notices for their work. I’m also still eager to see the rebuilt Grand Hall at Battersea Arts Centre and the newly refurbished theatre at Alexandra Palace. And I don’t get to the Arcola, the brilliant Orange Tree, the newly resurgent Jermyn Street Theatre or Gate nearly enough.

The Stage Awards 2019 shortlist: Fringe theatre of the year

I’ve also stopped seeing everything in the main venues, too: I’ve missed plenty of shows at the National and Royal Court this year, and not gone to A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge. I’ve also only infrequently got to Hampstead and the Lyric Hammersmith. My personal line in the sand around venues that do not pay Equity fringe agreement minimums has additionally precluded me from seeing most shows at the Union or Finborough, though some producers pay their actors there from time to time.

But the real joy for me is discovering a new space that you’ve never been to before that you end up loving. Last year, it was Kilworth House in Leicestershire; this year it has been Cirencester’s new Barn Theatre, the new Grange Park Opera venue near Guildford, and (a very late discovery for me) the fantastic Mill at Sonning, which has won the UK Theatre Award for Most Welcoming Theatre three times, and absolutely deserves it.

By not going to some theatres, you have more opportunities to go to others. And as a critic who actually likes to get out of London, I’ve had terrific trips to theatres in Manchester, Nottingham, Mold, Chichester and Colchester this year, among others. I’d like to get to them a lot more.

The Stage Awards 2019 shortlist: Regional theatre of the year

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