Archive for ‘My blog’

1 December, 2011

O Brave New World

Something unexpected and exciting arrived in the post this morning.


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So it transpires the package is promo for a new company, RETZ, and a couple of productions they’re doing: O Brave New World and PROCESS. The connection to HALL is what piqued my interest, because that production was undermined only by its own enormous ambition, and if the same people are still making theatre a couple of years later, perhaps the technology and their experience will have caught up with their vision. They’ve definitely got good PR people. This little package was a treat to unpack.

I’m intrigued to know exactly what the connection is to HALL, because the company behind that production, 1929, still seems to be active. (1929 also did Threshold, which was a highlight of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for me in 2010.) HALL isn’t actually mentioned in the RETZ promo material, only on my personalised advice slip. Who or what ties the two together? Writers? Producers? AD? The mystery deepens. Whoever they are, these people know how to drum up buzz.

1 August, 2011

There’s more to Mervyn Peake than Gormenghast

Written for the Blackshaw blog

This week Richard, Helen and I represented Blackshaw at the British Library’s second Mervyn Peake centenary celebration panel discussion. I’d felt gutted that I hadn’t made it along to the first one (Ellie and Vikki did, and had friendly chats with Brian Sibley and China Mieville, amongst others), but in hindsight I’m glad.

The first event focused on Gormenghast. Until I got involved with Blackshaw, Gormenghast was all I knew of Peake. I first became aware of it (and him) through the BBC2 miniseries, bought the collected tie-in edition of the novels, and never thought to delve deeper.

So while the Gormenghast-focused celebration would undoubtedly have been enjoyable, it wouldn’t have been as educational as the follow-up, which illuminated the many other facets of Peake’s artistry. Besides his novels, he wrote short stories, poems and plays, and was also a painter and draughtsman.

The evening was a flurry of fascinating facts, but these are the ones that stuck most in my mind.

  1. Fabian Peake (son of Mervyn) revealed that his father had a different room in the house for each of his different activities – one for writing, one for painting, etc. This was mostly a practical arrangement, so he didn’t splash paint on his drawings, and so on.
  2. Journalist Hilary Spurling talked at length about the illustrations Mervyn Peake drew for Alice in Wonderland – in particular his free-spirited, nymphettish Alice, who was a precursor to (not necessarily an influence on, but it’s fun to speculate) Nabokov’s iconic Lolita. (And his Mad Hatter was based on a man he saw in a phone box on the Charing Cross Road.)
  3. Sebastian Peake (also son of Mervyn, and someone we deal with regularly – he gets to vet our Titus Groan script before we’re allowed to perform it!) shared a wonderful anecdote: apparently his father used to trick strangers in the street into holding opposite ends of a tape measure, round the corner from one another, under the pretext of helping him ‘measure the corner’. He’d retreat to a nearby coffee shop and watch them. His record was twenty minutes. What a mischief-maker.
  4. Lecturer Rob Maslen introduced us to Peake poems and plays. As a big fan of Spike Milligan and Frank Key, I was particularly excited to hear that Peake wrote volumes of nonsense poetry. After a quick discussion about nonsense poetry amongst the panel, I came away with a reading list including Peake, Ogden Nash and Edward Lear.
  5. A Gormenghast-related one to end on: Peake wrote an alternative song for Swelter to sing at the beginning of Titus Groan. It’s published in one of his collections. Rob Maslen read the first couple of stanzas (in Swelter’s voice) and it’s a delight. As we left, I could see Richard plotting and scheming ways of getting it into our adaptation.
28 July, 2011


I’ve been experimenting with Storify, one of several startups catering to journalists who want to construct stories in a modern, relevant way. (Storyful, which I may try soon, is another.)

The basic concept is that you pull public-domain content from a variety of social streams – Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and others – and arrange it all into a coherent, chronological, columnar narrative. The intended outcome is to allow individuals to make some sense out of the barrages of citizen journalism that issue from newsworthy events. The journalist, then, if that title retains any relevance, is a filter, ordering chaos to make it digestible for anyone who has the yen to understand, but not the time or knowledge to filter for themselves.

Contrary to the claims on Storify’s site, Storified streams can’t yet be embedded into WordPress blog posts. If and when that functionality becomes available, I’ll make use of it. In the meantime, I’ll just link you out to the stories in their native habitat, on Storify’s website.

My first foray was to chronicle The Fall of the News of the World, since it was all the internet was talking about at the time, and I knew I’d have plenty of content to draw on.

Then I tried applying Storify to arts coverage and reviewing, by livetweeting my reaction to Five Truths at the Victoria and Albert Museum and saving the tweets for posterity as a Storify stream.

Let me know what you think (about Storify/storyful in general, or my stories in particular). I’ll post more as I continue experimenting.

11 December, 2010

Wilderness sabbatical

From now on I’ll be updating this blog only sporadically, if at all.

There are a few reasons:

  • I have a full-time job and a lot of on-the-side activities, and something had to go – there aren’t enough hours in the day, and if there were I still wouldn’t have the stamina.
  • I recently realised I’d started seeing reviews as the chore I had to endure in order to see the show for free. Not a healthy attitude for a reviewer.
  • I got sick of going to the theatre on my own. (I know, world’s smallest violin, etc.)

I might still occasionally blog shows that I go to see for fun, so if you’re subscribed to this blog (by RSS or email or what have you), don’t unsubscribe: just leave that subscription ticking over in the background and see what happens. (It’s more effort to unsubscribe than to stay subscribed, right?)

Before I go I’d like to plug one of the aforementioned on-the-side activities:

Blackshaw’s a combined theatre company, events organiser and drama education service. If you’ve found, by reading my reviews, that you share my taste in theatre to any extent, Blackshaw should be worth keeping an eye on. Our first major production will be Titus Groan, a stage adaptation of the first novel in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, slated for Autumn 2011.

Thanks for reading. See you around the web.


2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

26 October, 2010

Lorca is Dead (and behind the scenes, I thought I was too)

I don’t particularly want to relive this, but I think it’s important to get it out in the open.

My review of Belt Up‘s Lorca is Dead for The List, which you can find on, here on my blog or in issue 664 of The List magazine, is not the first review I wrote of that show. Compare and contrast the version I originally submitted to The List:

I admit it: I wanted Lorca is Dead to be a repeat of Belt Up’s five-star masterpiece The Tartuffe, and that was very wrong of me. Earlier this year at the York Theatre Royal, the company permanently retired The Tartuffe by killing off its protagonist, Orgon Poquelin; but Lorca is Dead sounded similar enough on paper that I dared hope for another zany laugh-a-minute anarch-o-thon to fill the void.

The two plays share a writer, Dominic J Allen, and both centre around a group of artists with a loose grip on reality (in this case the Paris Surrealists). The larger-than-life characters, plays within plays within plays, and stream-of-consciousness storytelling style that characterise Allen’s writing are all present in both cases. In Lorca is Dead, however, he uses those tools to create, not wacky hijinks, but unease, unrest and melancholy. Someone has, after all, died.

That isn’t to say there are no hijinks at all; there are, courtesy of a dangerously egomaniacal Salvador Dalí, but they’re denounced by all as disrespectful, and cause much of the aforementioned unease. Dalí’s plot to rewrite the history of the Surrealist movement with himself at the centre, using the time machine Antonin Artaud created to help tell Lorca’s life story, is just one of the play’s many parallel threads. The Surrealists re-enact Lorca’s life story, passing him like a baton amongst themselves and the audience; meanwhile the movement is succumbing to infighting caused by political, philosophical and personal differences, exacerbated by Dalí.

So much happens, and continues happening, all at once, throughout the play, that not everything gets a sufficient airing, and the pace drops occasionally when two threads intersect and the ensemble can’t change direction fast enough. But whatever the play’s flaws, at least it isn’t what I wanted: more of the same.

Shortly after this review appeared on – but thankfully well before it was due to appear in print – I received the following email from James Wilkes, one of Belt Up’s artistic directors.

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 16:08
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Just caught your review of Lorca. Could you retract the statement about the two plays having the same writer, this is factually inaccurate. I wrote The Tartuffe, Dominic J Allen wrote Lorca. We are two very different writers aiming for different ends.

Thankyou very much for your support for The Tartuffe but as a company, we appreciate reviewers commenting more on what the plays are, not what they’re not. I hope you can find the time to return to the play with a more open mind.

James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre

Which was like a kick to the solar plexus, for a number of reasons: realisation I’d screwed up professionally in a way that didn’t affect only me; realisation I’d done an injustice to a company whose work I’ve always enjoyed (and with whom I’d had, I think, as cordial a relationship as a reviewer can have with artists); realisation that I’d have to re-review the show that night, which happened to be my busiest night of the Fringe so far (including the Lorca is Dead re-review, I wrote six reviews that night – or rather, the next morning, as I was reviewing comedy and typically arriving back at my flat around 1:30am).

Once I’d caught my breath I sent this email back:

from Matt Boothman
to James Wilkes
date 12 August 2010 19:23
subject Re: Preview

Dear James,

I’ve contacted my editor about the offending review and it should be removed from the site soon. I will be rewriting it in its entirety tonight. I hope you’ll accept my sincere and unreserved apologies for the error.

Upon leaving Lorca is Dead, I realised I had approached the play with certain preconceptions, and felt that it was important to disclose this and address the effect it had on my reaction to the piece. I realised that in taking this approach I ran the risk of failing to discuss the piece on its own merits; clearly I allowed that risk to get the better of me, and as you’ve pointed out, the preconceptions I identified were based on wrongful assumptions from the start. The review was a near-total failure on my part.

I’m sorry once again for failing your show, and I hope my second attempt to review it will do it justice in a way we can all be satisfied with.

Best wishes,

Matt Boothman
Freelance Arts Journalist

To my relief, James responded not long afterwards with this:

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 20:47
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Cheers for this. The ensemble really appreciate it.

Let me know if you’d like to come see the show again.

Once again, we really appreciate your response.


James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre

I was going to write some kind of homily off the back of this: something about the damaging effect of preconceptions on theatre reviews; or about reviewer hubris (“I know this company’s work really well,” I thought; “I don’t need to double-check who wrote what before basing a whole argument around it”); or about artists’ right to reply to reviews.

But I don’t think anyone needs me to spell out the lessons to be learned from this incident. Just don’t do what I did.

3 October, 2010

Why’s the site gone white?

A couple of weeks ago I opened a poll to see whether this site should be black with light text or white with dark text – see this post for the whys and wherefores.

The poll was a wash-out, largely because I didn’t publicise it well enough – eight people voted (thanks all of you!) and the result was a draw between dark-on-light and light-on-dark.

While the poll was running I did some research, and discovered that the vast majority of people who know what they’re talking about agree: light text on a dark background is hurty on the eyes. So given the inconclusive poll result, I’m turning the site white as an experiment. I’m going to keep an eye on my traffic stats and see whether inverting the colour scheme encourages more people to visit and read my stuff, like the people who know what they’re talking about say it will.

If you have a position on this riveting and highly worthwhile issue, do comment below.

29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

27 September, 2010

Bloggers deserve comp tickets too, at least at the Lyric

The Lyric Hammersmith is trying out a new policy of comping in “regular theatre bloggers” to all its main house shows, which is a smart PR move and might also be another baby step towards a new post-print journalism.

I know Andrew Eglinton, founder and editor of the London Theatre Blog (right now, sadly on another of its extended hiatus periods – keep it bookmarked, it’ll be back) has gently pestered Ian Shuttleworth on a couple of occasions about including blogs in the Theatre Record. Mr Shuttleworth was justifiably loathe to open those floodgates, because Theatre Record is still near enough a one-man operation, and:

  1. keeping tabs on all the critical outlets currently operative in the blogosphere is a much, much bigger task than the already never-ending task of keeping tabs on every newspaper theatre section;
  2. deciding which blogs are and aren’t worthy of inclusion in a permanent record of critical discourse is too much power for one man to wield.

In the absence of such a unilateral journalistic edict, the Lyric has (presumably) hand-picked a selection of bloggers whose opinions it (presumably) considers to carry some weight – and (presumably) who have reacted favourably to its programming in the past. Perhaps if other theatre industry players – other venues, artists, producers, PR firms, journalists, academics – started weighing in with their own top tens, we’d start to see some overlap and the beginnings of consensus.

I’m very interested to know which other bloggers the Lyric is courting. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear from you either directly via any of the options on the contact page, or in the comments on this post. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest we form a support group. I’m just interested to see what it is we have in common.

This was supposed to be the introduction to a blog on the Lyric’s latest main house production, The Big Fellah, which I saw earlier this evening, but I think that can wait until tomorrow night. All the reviews are out already – you’ve plenty to read while you wait for my two cents (I’ve even bookmarked them all for you – click here for the list).

In the meantime, let’s start the quest for consensus right here: which “regular theatre bloggers” would you invite to a production you were involved in?

15 September, 2010

It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white…

…but perhaps you have a preference?

Someone told me the other day that I really needed to do something about this site, because nobody likes reading light text on a dark background. I’m inclined to respect his opinion because he’s the Head of Digital (i.e. web design) at one of the top 20 design agencies in the UK.

The WordPress theme I’m using – Structure, in case you were wondering – lets me switch very easily between light-on-dark and dark-on-light. I chose light-on-dark because it’s more eco-friendly – a monitor displaying a black webpage consumes less energy than one displaying a white webpage (if was black instead of white, global energy consumption could be reduced by something like 3000 megawatt-hours a year). But if light-on-dark is putting people off visiting, well, then the whole site’s a great big waste of energy.

So it’s poll time. Click the thumbnails below to see how a typical page would look in each colour scheme, then scroll down to the poll and vote for your favourite. Whichever scheme has the most votes when the poll closes on Wednesday 22 September is the one I’ll go with from now on.

Dark on Light - click to see full size

Dark on Light - click to see full size

Light on Dark - click for full size

Light on Dark - click for full size