Friday, August 31, 2012

for a theatre critic's birthday

An envelope came today, with an anniversary brochure from a company called Sun.Ergos ( 

A rather beautiful brochure, with a beautiful card from one of the company’s two founders/performers, thanking me for a review I wrote of them in The Scotsman in 1981. 

I’m quoted inside. I said: “They have the rare gift for making you look at the world with eyes wide open, as if seeing familiar things for the very first time, to celebrate its beauty without sentimentality - and register its horrors without flinching...”

The card said that they celebrated their 30th birthday as a company in 2007 and were now working on their 62nd show, “thanks in part”, they wrote, “to the graciousness of your writing about us in the 80’s.”

I suspect it's got far more to do with their talent, and their love and their courage. But it was so touching to hear from them again after all these years; and a pleasant change, too. Generally on the thankfully rare occasions someone comes up to me and says “You reviewed my show back in the 80’s”, my heart sinks, because so often I wrote something negative and wounding.

We met a family in Portugal once, on the beach: a mother and her two children. She was interested to hear I worked in theatre because as it happened her husband had tried to be a playwright but had given up, discouraged because he’d had a show on the Fringe and it had been given such a hurtful and appalling review. And they still used the reviewer’s name as a kind of bogeyman to frighten the children with. “His name was John, too”, she said. “John Clifford. Do you happen to know him?”

I said I was sorry and tried to explain I never set out to hurt anyone. It was just i had very strong feelings about theatre, then and now, and if I hated something, I just hated it. And without really being aware of their power, I had the words to express my hatred. And my love too.

I’d also started out as a reviewer because when I discovered i was a playwright I was thirty years old, unemployed, with my first child and had spent the past ten years of my life as a nurse, as a bus conductor, as a yoga teacher, and a researcher into 17th century Spanish theatre. And so knew nothing about contemporary plays; and couldn’t afford to buy tickets to see any.

I started out reviewing for the Fringe, and then dear Allen Wright, the Scotsman arts editor, kept me on and so for the next 3 or so years I was seeing sometimes two shows a week and writing 250 words on each.

Often in those days I’d be asked to review shows live: which meant seeing the play and then having to write my words in the next hour to an hour and a half,  type them up and then phone or deliver them to the old Scotsman office before midnight.

It was such an amazing apprenticeship. It taught me to write forcefully, and fast. Above all, it helped me refine my taste and understand with ruthless clarity what I liked and did not. 

And most of the art of writing plays is learning to write the kind of plays you yourself want to see...

I owe this to Joyce McMillan, whose birthday it is this week.

She suggested I write reviews; and she showed me the way to approach Allen Wright to get the job.

I owe her a lot. We all do. She was reviewing theatre then with clarity, passion, sensitivity, eloquence and fierce intelligence. And she is doing so still.

Out in all weathers, to all parts of the country, in buses and taxis and trains.

There are very few people, if there’s anyone, who is her equal in knowledge of our theatre, understanding of what works, and consummate professionalism.

Goodness, but she makes me cross sometimes: but that, too, is part of her job.

To keep writing, to keep reminding newspapers and everyone who cares to read that theatre matters. That it deserves to be written about with such passionate skill.

So here’s to you, Joycie. Happy Birthday....

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