A Critical Stage – Theatre at the Tabard review

Image above: Barbara Wilshere and David Acton in A Critical Stage at the Tabard; photograph Charles Flint

New play by Chiswick resident Gareth Armstrong

Review by Simon Thomsett

James Agate was a key figure in English theatre during the middle part of the twentieth century, primarily as an influential and respected critic, most notably for the Sunday Times in an era when such a position conferred status on the holder. His printed opinions mattered and had significance for the success or failure of the shows he reviewed.

A Critical Stage is a new play centred on Agate, set during the war and currently playing at the Theatre at the Tabard. Written and directed by Gareth Armstrong, the play is a finely drawn character study of Agate and some of his immediate circle.

Image above: Jeremy Booth as the conceited and highly opinionated Agate

The first half is rather uneven. The start is decidedly Joe Orton-ish with some jokey business about bondage, casual sex and an unconventional use of a silver trophy. That frantic beginning suggests that what follows will be a bit of a lark, but the tone then shifts into drawing room comedy before settling for a rather calmer dissection of a character who may be little known now except to theatre historians.

Armstrong’s play sits in judgement of its lead: he doesn’t read the books that he’s meant to review, openly admits to leaving plays before the end and is driven by a desperate desire for a knighthood, which he believes is his due for his services to literature.

This is an interesting risk; Armstrong makes his lead unlikeable and rather self-obsessed. Jeremy Booth as Agate rises to the occasion and plays him as high-minded, not much interested in other people’s feelings and protective of his right to expose any flaws he perceives, even when the criticism seems rather personal.

Image above: Sam Hill as Spike, with Jeremy Booth and David Acton

When actress Gwen arrives (a poised and thoughtful Barbara Wilshere) following publication of a scathing review of her performance in one of Shakespeare’s most famous roles, she is reproachful and tries to unpick Agate’s apparent willingness to be cruel.

It is she who will confront him as the play moves on and ask awkward questions about the difference between the artist and the commentator.

Others are more indulgent: Spike, Agate’s general runabout, ever ready to do the great man’s bidding is played with cheeky charm by Sam Hill. Leo, an Austrian Jewish refugee and Agate’s secretary, is played by David Acton with apparently endless patience. But Leo is a man adrift, a talented pianist who is unable to play in public due to an initially unspecified “terror”.

Image above: David Acton as Leo, in full flow

The nature of that terror is chillingly revealed later with Acton commanding the stage as he relives a moment in his past that has been hitherto repressed.

In the end, the play is more character study than story driven and as such, it’s done with aplomb.

A word too, for Hazel Owen’s set, which feels both lived in and of its time, The Tabard’s production values impressing as ever. A Critical Stage plays until 17 June.

tabard.org.uk

Simon Thomsett

Simon Thomsett has worked in the professional theatre for a number of years. He started out as a stage manager and technician then became a venue director and producer, notably at the Hackney Empire, Fairfield Halls and most recently the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.

Since leaving full time work last year, he is now working as a consultant and on some small scale producing projects. He is a Chiswick resident and a passionate advocate for great theatre.