Gareth Armstrong’s new play A Critical Stage at the Tabard

Image above: Barbara Wilshere, Gareth Armstrong Jeremy Booth in rehearsal for A Critical Stage at the Tabard

Interview with Gareth Armstrong about his new play ‘A Critical Stage’

There is a new play on at the Tabard theatre in Chiswick. ‘New’ in that it opens on 31 May, but ‘new’ also in the sense that it has never been performed anywhere in front of an audience before – “a world premiere” says writer / director Gareth Armstrong wryly.

The play is set in 1942: ‘In a wartime London of blackouts, rationing and the Blitz, James Agate, famous author and theatre critic, refuses to change his lifestyle. But if the bombs can’t curb his passion for hard work, high living and illicit encounters, there are soon some bombshells threatening to blow his world apart.’

Image above: Barbara Wilshere as Gwen; David Acton as Leo

“A fantastic theatrical character”

Why choose James Agate as a subject?

“He was very famous in the interwar years. I read a biography of him by James Harding and just thought ‘what a fantastic theatrical character’.

“He was born in 1877; went to Manchester Grammar; when he was a child his father invited the great Sarah Bernhardt to lunch. He went into his father’s business and was a successful businessman in the cloth industry for 20 years  before changing career and becoming a prolific writer.”

Agate wrote some 40 books; broadcast on BBC radio and became a very influential critic. Unlike the other critics at the time, he had not been to university and brought a totally different perspective to theatre. His impact on the theatre, arts criticism and the cultural life of Britain was enormous.

It was Agate who ‘discovered’ Journey’s End, the play by English playwright R. C. Sherriff, set in the trenches in the First World War, which continues to be produced in theatres and has been recreated in film several times, most recently in 2017.

“It was because he said ‘this is really good’ that it got the attention it deserved” says Gareth.

Images above: Sam Hill as Smike; Jeremy Booth as James Agate

A Critical Stage is based on real life events: “I’ve invented a couple of relationships, but it is based on research, truth and speculation.”

Playing a dangerous game

Agate has written a damning review of a performance by Gwen, a prominent actress who confronts him about it. He is looked after by Smike, a young and tolerant houseboy and he has a volatile relationship with his secretary, Leo, an Austrian Jewish refugee. Agate was gay and indiscreet about his sexuality at a time when he could have gone to prison for it. As the play unfolds Agate’s increasingly careless behaviour is not going unnoticed with his bosses at the Sunday Times newspaper…

Theatre at the Tabard has a history of bringing new writing to audiences. Gareth introduced his play Fondly Remembered at the Tabard in 2015, a very funny play about the ageing members of a theatre company getting back together to plan the memorial service of one of their colleagues.

Gareth’s career started in the National Youth theatre. He has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and “run a couple of theatres in Wales” and was one of the artistic directors at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. He has lived in Chiswick for more than 20 years.

Images above: Gareth Armstrong; Barbara Wilshere

This is the fourth in-house production by Take Note Theatre since the company  took over running theatre above the Tabard pub in Bath Rd, Chiswick, in July 2022. The photographs, by Liviu-Andrei Enache, were taken during rehearsals.

A Critical Stage is on at the Tabard on Bath Rd in Chiswick from Wednesday 31 May until Saturday 17 June.

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