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Front Row: Evenings at the Theatre by Beryl Bainbridge

From  1992 until 2002, Beryl was the theatre reviewer for The Oldie magazine, and  her reviews have been collected in this volume. Collected columns like these can easily date, however Beryl prefaces each review in her idiosyncratic style with comment about what she’d been doing, or thoughts about arriving at the theatre. She then follows that with some serious research about the play or production in question before brief comments about what she saw.

In the introduction she gives us some autobiographical notes about her own short stage career, which was character-forming, and provided the inspiration for her novel An awfully big adventure. She also confesses, that coming from the theatrical tradition herself, she finds it impossible to really criticise anyone – thus she ends up mostly praising or not saying much at all!

Luckily for me, the book coincides with the height of my London theatre-going and I actually saw many of the same productions, so could compare and contrast.

The volume starts off with Alan Bennett’s wonderful adaptation of The Wind in the Willows at the National Theatre (1992).  Although she acknowledges Bennett’s production  has ‘a lot of sunshine’, she wishes the Wild Woods could have been darker (like those in her own novels, perhaps).

She also dislikes the lack of curtains, proscenium arches, footlights and the dimming of the lights that you get in modern theatres.  She says: “I was forced to smile throughout, facial muscles stuck in a grimace owing to the brightness of the auditorium.”   This never occurred to me – I was transfixed throughout the whole production!.

Moving on to Macbeth by the RSC at the Barbican in 1994.  It starred Derek Jacobi (“excellent”) and Cheryl Campbell (“whimpered too pathetically”), I agree. Like me, she liked parts of the production, and hated others, it lacked “visual magic and theatricality” – the set was particularly awful. I also remember Jacobi’s fan-club occupying the front row and throwing flowers at the end – I read elsewhere that some of them went to every performance!

When she talks about Rodney Ackland’s 1952 play Absolute Hell, (National Theatre, 1995) – she says that much of it “will be lost on those still in the bloom of youth,”. It’s set in a Soho club run by Christine (Judi Dench), and features a young writer (Greg Hicks) who is overcome by rejection.  Beryl loved this play; I’m afraid I remember it mostly for Dench being rather shouty, and Dot Cotton from Eastenders (June Brown) having a part. She was right – it was lost on me.  We are in agreement though about Trevor Nunn’s 1998 NT production of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People with Ian McKellen in superb form.

I’ve only selected a few of the actual productions that I’ve seen too to comment on, but Beryl’s reviews cover a wide range of shows at a wide range of theatres, although mostly, but not always, in the West End. From pantomimes (she adores Peter Pan, natch), to musicals like the 1990s Oliver! revival and Les Miserables, popular plays like The Woman in Black as well as the literary heavyweights – all are given the same treatment.

The last word on her reviews though goes to her review of her own play of An Awfully Big Adventure at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1992. It starred her daughter, Rudi Davies, as Stella (based on Beryl herself).  She ends the review with a tongue in cheek critical sentence or two: “Too much of the first act is given over to exposition. There must be a better way of doing it. Given time, the author may write a better play.”

If I hadn’t been familiar with the era and actors, I may not have enjoyed these reviews quite so much – but they hit the spot for me, and brought a real touch of nostalgia actually. (8/10)

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