Review: A Critical Stage, Theatre at the Tabard ★★★☆☆

Photo: Charles-Flint

by Natalie Evans

Gareth Armstrong’s new play A Critical Stage is inspired by the life of the infamous James Agate, a British author and revered theatre critic, most remembered for the writing he did in the lead-up to, and during, the second world war. This meant that the primary narrative of the play was a sort of criticism of criticism itself, at least in the artistic sense. Almost immediately, Armstrong exposes his protagonist for being a fraud, not even reading or watching the art that he claims to have the intellectual authority to review. So, when he is accused of simply being jealous of the artists he berrates as a result of not possessing their creative talent, the audience don’t exactly come to his defence, and are made to reflect on why those who tear down the life’s work of others feel the need to do so.

Despite being a piece of new writing, this play felt extremely reminiscent of the work of Terrence Rattigan. It shared many of the same tropes of After the Dance, the most prevalent of which being that the protagonist was also an alcoholic author who is inherently insecure about his legacy and determined to extract himself from the world outside his walls built of privilege.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s Agate did not have the same gravity and dimension of Rattigan’s Scott-Fowler. This being partially because, while Jeremy Booth portrayed the role of the Agate with surface level accuracy, he lacked the subtlety of an actor truly playing the subtext of a scene. We saw the canonical performative cynicism of Agate, but we missed out on the pain underneath.

The absolute highlight of the production was Barbara Wilshire. Her presence was like a breath of fresh air within a somewhat stagnant story. The argument wherein her character Gwen, an aging but persistently graceful actress, makes the aforementioned accusation is the best scene in the play. This being a testament to both the actor, and Armstrong for making Gwen’s words feel so authentic to a woman in her position.

The piece works perfectly for the fringe-style venue of The Theatre at the Tabard, who host this world premiere, with its singular location and character-driven plot meaning that the production can reach its full potential in a more intimate space. In fact, the nuance of the piece would perhaps get lost on a grander stage. The enclosed nature of the Tabard allows the audience to share in theclaustrophobia that these characters are experiencing as they attempt to lead a life of luxury during a time of national hardship. The costume, set, and lighting designs all work together with seamless cohesion to achieve this potential, and create a delightfully realistic world that invites the audience to have a VIP view of Agate’s life.

While A Critical Stage may not have felt fresh enough to make waves as a piece of new writing, it landed excellently with the clientele that could find the nostalgic joy in the 20th century style.

A Critical Stage is on at the Theatre at the Tabard Theatre until 17 June 2023