8 December, 2012

Blackshaw Christmas Newsletter

Blackshaw is a theatre and events company I’ve worked with on and off over the last couple of years. They had a Christmas event coming up, and asked me to write some promo copy for their email newsletter. The event, Kitsch Christmas, is all about the cheesy side of Christmas (festive knitwear, drunken Santa, Dad dancing, and so on), and the brief was to frame the email as a cringeworthy round robin from some smug relatives, boasting about their perfect family’s achievements.

Which sounded like fun to me.

I don’t have any relatives that insufferable, thankfully, so as a starting point, I looked online for some dos and don’ts and hints and tips (will the express intention of doing all the don’ts):

Seven Tips for Sparkling Christmas Letters (Organized Christmas)

Absolutely Fabulous (Watford Observer)

And here’s the end result (complete with a family photo of Blackshaw’s organising committee):

FROM: info@blackshawonline.com

SUBJECT: Blackshaw Christmas Newsletter

Dearest everybody,

Gosh, how time flies! Can you believe the festive season is here already? It seems like only yesterday we were all together celebrating Christmas in our old place!

It really has been such a very busy year for the Blackshaw family. Little Titus Groan was born in April, and we were so, so touched by how many of you came to say hello to our little bundle of joy.

But of course you all want to know about the big move, and now we can officially put you out of your misery: yes, the traditional Blackshaw family Christmas open house will be happening again this year, and it’s going to be bigger and better than ever! You must all absolutely promise to come – the place is far too big for just us!


The party will be on Saturday 15th December at 7:30pm. The address for your sat-navs is The Antelope, SW17 9NG. Do remember to wear your seasonal knitwear and snazzy festive accessories – Auntie Lizzie and Uncle Nick have really pulled out all the stops this year, so dress to impress!

We’re going to ask you all to contribute £5 at the door, just in case we see a repeat of last year’s ‘Christmas Spirit Incident’ with Uncle Steve and have to hire another industrial carpet cleaner! He’s promised to behave this year, but after a sherry or two, no one will be able to stop him whipping out the guitar sing-song … such fun!

Our little ones are getting on very well, by the way (I know you were wondering!). We’re all terribly proud of how they’ve all taken to their drama and music with such gusto. Just between us and the Christmas tree, if they’re very good we might let them stay up late so they can put on a little festive performance for you all…

And as if that weren’t enough to bring you flocking to our door, we’re decking the halls with all our usual party games and disco fun. There’ll be mystery prizes on offer for those that want to get involved, and we’re on the Twitter now so give us a follow for some exclusives (and little competitions!) in the lead up to the big day. We’ve also arranged for a very special visitor from the North Pole to join us! Have you been naughty or nice?!

Now, we’d like to get an idea of numbers, so if you’re sure you’re coming, send a quick email to events@blackshawonline.com. If you do, there’ll be some of Grandma and Grandpa Weston’s world famous Christmas cookies on a table for you and your loved ones on the night!

Until then, we’ve filmed a little christmas message for you all. Have a little look here

Much love and Christmas cheer,
The Blackshaw Family xxx

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.

11 November, 2011

Five Truths

  1. First, some context, so you know what on Earth I’m reacting to.

  2. And now, my reaction.
  3. At the @v_and_a, experiencing #fivetruths. Arrived midway through the loop. Correctly identified Brecht, muddled the rest completely.
  4. Hanging around now to watch each Truth all the way through. Stanislavski first. #fivetruths
  5. The Stanislavskian Ophelia could be a character in Cartwright’s ROAD. #fivetruths
  6. Stanislavskian Ophelia’s drowning clearly a choice: she composes & arranges herself, in the bare minimum of water. #fivetruths
  7. Not that she looks happy about it – but it feels like a decision nonetheless, not a reaction. #fivetruths
  8. Brecht’s Ophelia next. She’s once again deliberate, making herself up like her own undertaker. Very Gestic! #fivetruths
  9. Have I mentioned that Michelle Terry is stunningly good? #fivetruths
  10. Brecht’s Ophelia addresses us directly, of course. Unwavering eye contact. And singing! Love a bit of Brecht. #fivetruths
  11. Stanislavski’s Ophelia shows us why she dies. Makes the act tragic, cathartic. Brecht’s tells us. Makes the act an accusation. #fivetruths
  12. And matter-of-factly, she dunks herself. #fivetruths
  13. Out of my comfort zone now. I’ve never studied Artaud, Brook or Grotowski. #fivetruths
  14. Already the Artaud version seems quite dependent on the camera angle. Close up through the fishtank. Would it work on stage? #fivetruths
  15. Artaud’s the Theatre of Cruelty one, right? Can anyone give me a 140-character crash course? #fivetruths
  16. @MattBoothman The idea is that it communicates pre-linguistically, pre-rationally.
  17. @MattBoothman Though it would be fair to add that I think Artaud is 85% codswallop.
  18. @DanRebellato I think maybe my secondary school drama teachers agreed, and that’s why they only taught Brecht and Stanislavski…
  19. I fear for Artaud-Ophelia’s goldfish. #fivetruths
  20. She took the goldfish bowl off-camera, goldfish and all, and it was never seen again.
  21. Brecht-Ophelia and Grotowski-Ophelia are competing, drowning the rest out. #fivetruths
  22. Brecht-Ophelia does a lot of strident singing. Grotowski-Ophelia wails. Because the underlying structure of the five pieces is the same, these high-energy moments tend to occur simultaneously. Stay in the installation long enough and you get a really strong sense of the rhythm of the template speech.

  23. The weird distortion on the camera is distracting me from Terry’s performance as Artaud-Ophelia. #fivetruths
  24. @MattBoothman That’s the point. Just see the work as cruelty, and how ‘painful’ it is for actor/audience
  25. @jakeyoh Well, that’s certainly a different way to look at performance…
  26. The sound is muffled/underwatery too. I don’t understand how this would work as a theatrical style. Feeling a bit ignorant. #fivetruths
  27. There’s not much question but that Artaud-Ophelia is mad, plain and simple. #fivetruths
  28. On to Brook-Ophelia. Nostalgic. Going through possessions with reverence – saying goodbye. #fivetruths
  29. She’s gone. We’re left with an empty space. #fivetruths
  30. See what I did there?
  31. She’s back. This time I really get the feeling she doesn’t want to do what she’s going to do. Singing to delay the deed. #fivetruths
  32. Brook-Ophelia’s suicide has a tragic inevitability to it – but also a heroic determination to be remembered. #fivetruths
  33. Brook-Ophelia’s tidy desk is her combined suicide note / last will and testament / confession. #fivetruths
  34. Brook-Ophelia floats but doesn’t drown, her face above the surface. #fivetruths
  35. @MattBoothman My favourite is your next one… Grotowski. It’s chilling.
  36. Finally, Grotowski-Ophelia. My brain is saying “Poor Theatre” to me – have I got that right? #fivetruths
  37. Yes, according to Wikipedia:

  38. The Grotowski screens are dark the longest. The rest are humming, arranging possessions … this one’s fashionably late. #fivetruths
  39. But wow, what an entrance. Shaking and wailing with despair under the desk. #fivetruths
  40. Grotowski-Ophelia is alternately resigned to her fate and railing against it. #fivetruths
  41. Five cycles in and Brecht-Ophelia is still demanding my attention, impossible to tune out. #fivetruths
  42. Grotowski-Ophelia’s main motivator is grief. She’s utterly defeated by it, yet driven on by it too. #fivetruths
  43. Grotowski-Ophelia’s possessions lie abandoned, carelessly discarded. Stillness. She’s nowhere to be seen. #fivetruths
  44. …and lights up on her floating face down, the deed carried out *ob scene*. #fivetruths
  45. Thus endeth my #fivetruths Twitter deluge.
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 December, 2010

Writer and performer Michael Laurence on Krapp, 39

Recorded for theatreVOICE at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 27 November 2010

Interview: Michael Laurence. After a brief extract from the work, the writer and performer talks to Matt Boothman about his new play, Krapp, 39 (Tristan Bates Theatre), which is an autobiographical piece in which Laurence, a Samuel Beckett fan and inspired by Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), creates a diary using video, a laptop and audio recording on his 39th birthday.

You can listen to this interview using the player below.

If you’d like to download the episode, right-click here and “Save As”.

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

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?)

2 November, 2010

The Print Room: the newest theatre in London

Recorded for theatreVOICE at The Print Room, 29 October 2010

Interview: Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters. The Co-Artistic Directors of The Print Room in Notting Hill, London’s newest theatre venue, talk to me about the venture, which launches with Fabrication by Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini. Recorded at The Print Room.

You can listen to this interview using the player below.

If you’d like to download the episode, right-click here and “Save As”.

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

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 List.co.uk, 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 List.co.uk – 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.