Seen at Theatre at the Tabard.
Written and directed by Gareth Armstrong, A Critical Stage offers an insight into the life and work of theatre critic, James Agate. Agate was regarded as the foremost journalist of his kind but due to the nature of his work, his literary genius is largely unknown by modern audiences. Agate came to journalism and writing late in life but spent over 20 years – until his death in 1947 – as the theatre critic for The Sunday Times.
Set in 1942, the play is based on real-life events and focuses on Agate’s relationship with his secretary, Leo, friend and actress, Gwen, as well as with himself. We also learn about some of Agate’s off-stage relationships and his somewhat salacious lifestyle, which didn’t go unnoticed by his houseboy, Smike, or his bosses at The Sunday Times, and nearly led to his untimely departure from the newspaper. It is a charming, period piece, which perfectly evokes war-torn London, and gives us a fascinating insight into Agate’s lifestyle.
Although this is a very enjoyable production with good performances from all involved, I was left somewhat dissatisfied with the story telling and the direction. We’re told of the conflict between critic and aggrieved actress, Gwen, which we discover is for her apparently poor Lady MacBeth. Yet, there was barely any. Two strong-willed characters should surely have created more jeopardy. More interesting was the relationship between Agate and his secretary, Leo. A queer, Jewish refugee, Leo is beautifully and heart-warmingly played by David Acton. We learn that he’s a classically trained musician and could have had a career as a concert pianist but stage-fright, nay ‘terror’, put paid to that. But what does that really have to do with the life and times of James Agate? It feels as if some editing of the script is still required to ensure the emphasis is well and truly on the main character.
How foolish to critique a play about a theatre critic! Whatever you think of this critic’s work – trade or art – this is still well worth the trip to Turnham Green.