Sunday, February 13, 2011

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #13 Soho Theatre

"You can't try and tell me that Soho Theatre is a fringe venue".

I look across at Breakfast Club Boy.

"As I've set out on the blog - the rules are-"

BCBoy stops me. "I've read the rules and your attempt to justify them."

Bugger. I forget he does stuff like read this blog.

"Also - I don't like the pizzas at the Lyric Hammersmith. They're overpriced."

Suddenly, everyone's a critic.

In an ideal blog exchange I'd have come back with something scathing and witty at this point. Instead I make a sort of squeaky "meh, meh, meh" noise.

But, for all people might poke and question - I REFER YOU BACK TO THE RULES (and the fact that I'll have a proper non-capitalised discussion on what 52:52 has suggested 'fringe' might be at a later date).

Which is why I'm at the Soho Theatre for 52:52. Or, really, the Soho Theatre and Writers' Centre. That bit has got to warm my heart. The building itself is all glass new build in the heart of Soho, complete with an entrance to the Box Office that I always think won't open (it's a fire door, which confuses me no end). If the writer bit didn't give it away, new writing is (spot my theme of 52:52) how Soho defines itself. Only - that's not entirely true. For Soho also houses a lot of comedy. I can't comment much on that because I've never actually seen any comedy there. But then I hardly ever see comedy anywhere.

I, however, have a rather particular association with this venue: namely of being force-fed whisky in the bar 30 minutes before the rehearsed reading of foreverafterwards in order to STOP MY CRAZY.

It's a visceral memory I have to confess.

Ivan and the Dogs, however, is pretty much the opposite of that memory. It's quiet and gentle and spreads out around you slowly and deftly. As a young boy Ivan runs away from home to escape from his abusive stepfather. On the freezing streets of Yeltsin's Moscow he befriends a group of wild dogs and what emerges, childlike and fragile, is a story so quietly bleak that you cannot but wish this were simply a fairy tale. Of course you know it's worse than that; Ivan is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov.

Hattie Naylor's script rolls with childlike attention from one event to the next, each crashing into each other with an immediacy which Rad Kaim, as Ivan, owns completely. Ivan judges nothing, it's left simply for the audience to infer the waste of life and hope and childhood around him. As his world shrinks, the icy cold white box which imprisons Kaim on stage betrays the starkness of the story he has to tell us.

Out of the theatre and seated on the top deck of the 176 as my favourite view in London loomed before me I looked out of the window and had a little cry. If I could have made George Osborne watch any play I saw in 2010 then this would be the one.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Ivan and the Dogs, Hattie Naylor

Type of space: Main theatre seating 140, studio theatre that is really - and oddly - wide, a large bar which is (I believe) franchised.

Type of productions: New work, comedy and, currently, an opera.

Nearest Station: There website helpfully informs me that the nearest tube is Tottenham Court Road. Obviously I didn't use the tube to get there because there's Charing Cross Train station and the 176.

Seating: (In the main theatre) Padded seating of the bench-sort with a good rake, excluding the front two rows. So, unless you want your view obscured, don't sit in the second row. There's some seating at the top on stools which is of the bendy-neck Cottesloe variety.

Condition of toilets: Large, spacious and suitable to sit in for a few minutes when the whisky has gone to your head.

Bar produce: Okay - not cheap. Didn't buy anything before Ivan because of remembering the prices being silly previously.

Other comments: Both theatre and studio are up a couple of flights of stairs. There is a lift but, if like me, you're too embarrassed to use it, get ready for a little hike.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I could have screamed but instead I wrote this.

Let me throw something out there before I write my response to Matt Trueman’s post on the Guardian Theatre Blog. Trueman’s someone who, as a theatre critic (and indeed the owner of a blog), I respect. I enjoy reading his long-form criticism (criticism which his blog allows the space for). I think he writes intelligently and articulately about theatre, something I rate quite highly. And the note on his blog does say that his views should be shouted down. So this is me doing just that.

I’ve no desire to get into the critic vs blogger debate (seriously, I can’t believe that we’re still here), though it’s difficult not to smell the whiff of the ‘superiority’ of that debate in some of Trueman’s post. What I want to talk about is the blog post itself. The sentence that got me? “Equally, bloggers must stop the cynical practice of reviewing previews”. If the “must” in that sentence didn’t compel me to throw something at my computer screen (where was I when Matt Trueman was voted commander-in-chief of theatre bloggers?) then the “cynical” did. I am cynical about many things (including but not limited to TFL, possible British success in any sport that doesn’t involve sitting down, anything that comes out of Nick Clegg’s mouth, the fashion trend of leggings and haggis). Theatre and blogging would make the top ten list of things I am least cynical about. They both involve far too much personal effort to be otherwise.

But let me give Trueman’s reasoning a chance. Reason one: bloggers attend previews to save money (but then undermine this by stating that the lack of discount entitles them to blog). Let me use my example of buying Hamlet tickets this week. I booked for a preview performance because it will save me £10. Ten pounds for me is half of my weekly travel budget. Any discount (however small) is a good thing when you see as much theatre as the average theatre blogger does. I still paid £17.50 for my ticket though. That’s not an inconsiderable amount for me (even living in London there’s still a lot of other things I could do with that money). Am I less entitled to write about that show than when I’ve paid £10 for a dayseat at the National? Or when I’ve paid £8 to go to Southwark Playhouse? Or £12 to the New Diorama? Or when I’ve been papered? What Trueman’s statement doesn’t take into account is that a discount is HUGELY important on a financial basis when you’re paying your way but this discount doesn’t mean you’re not giving out a sizeable chunk of your weekly budget to this theatre.

[There’s a bigger question about previews that I’d like to note. As long time blog reader will know, for 18 months I was a Duty Manager for the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The WYP have previews that usually last for 4-5 shows. Every time there was a preview we’d pull out a big PREVIEW SIGN that bruised my ankles on more than one occasion and generally got in the way of everyone. And I lost count of the number of times an audience member asked me “What does preview mean?”. These were people who’d bought tickets and didn’t understand what a preview meant. In truth previews only mean anything for people who regularly go to the theatre or for the people who make it. For anyone else, given they’ve paid for their ticket, this is the show “concrete” (to borrow a word). At the point that you charge people to view your work this is the inevitable reality.]

The second reason given for blogging previews being “cynical” is that they are “chas[ing] hits”. And y’know what? It’s nice when you get hits. And writing early in a run means you’re more likely to get them. However, if I were really after hits I wouldn’t be writing about theatre. I’d write about Justin Bieber EVERY DAY. Or I wouldn’t, because I only know who he is because of twitter, I’d write about David Tennant a lot more than I already do. I can only marvel at those bloggers who keep up with their viewing in a less chaotic manner than me. I’ve pointed out before that theatre blogging takes effort and rushing out to see every show first and then rushing home to write about it rather than sleeping or going to work or spending time with your family or friends just so you can get some hits which only you will know about (because it is 2011 and no one has a stat counter visible any more) seems utterly ridiculous. Moreover in terms of effort and reward that’s a pretty skewed equation. Writing that blog post and getting hits isn’t the reason theatre bloggers go to the theatre (something that Trueman’s post forgets). They go to theatre for the theatre.

My disbelief doesn’t, however, stop there. I’m bewildered by the notion that theatre bloggers must have “ethical responsibilities” to productions. As a blogger I have ethical responsibilities to my family and my friends and the people I care about. I have ethical responsibilities to the theatre that pays my rent. I have ethical responsibilities to my reader (in terms of those productions that I may write about which involve people I know, or when, as sometimes happens, I get sent free stuff). Personally (and this is just me from my own experience as a writer) I have ethical responsibilities to companies/writers if I’m at “Scratch” event (either for free or for some nominal fee). If you invite me into your rehearsal room I have ethical responsibilities to you. If I come to your dress rehearsal I have ethical responsibilities to you. If you charge me £10, £17.99 or £35 or more for a ticket and I do not know anyone involved and have no connection to the building or company I have no ethical responsibilities to you other than arriving on time, paying attention and being polite to the FOH staff. I am a paying customer. I make no claim for my writing being the official view of anyone other than my own subjective, meandering self. My blog isn’t a newspaper or a carefully curated academic journal to be preserved in someone’s archives.

I also can’t help but feel that Trueman conflates some of his own reasons for blogging with those of other theatre bloggers. I’d suggest that few bloggers want the same “respect” as critics (if we take respect to principally mean industry acknowledgement). I just want as much respect as anyone who has paid to see your show, has bought things in your bar, has supported you. Which I’d suggest deserves at least as much respect as any critic (if we take respect here to mean something much more important).

It’s nice in some ways that Trueman considers theatre bloggers to be influential enough to merit such a post (bloggers are most useful to smaller theatres/companies/those who are not in the London centric gaze of the “dead white male”, thus those who are least likely to have extensive previews) . In other ways it’s laughable that Trueman felt the need to expend the effort on the post – a futile attempt to hold back the sea by wagging a finger at it and pulling a stern face. Theatre criticism isn’t the same as it was ten years ago. Bloggers and web forums and twitter and onwards. Who knows what it will look like in ten more? Bloggers are here to stay, bloggers reviewing previews (for all the reasons listed above) are here to stay. It might not be the brave new world that Trueman would like to envisage but it isn’t for us to adapt to the existing system – it’s for us all to invent something new.