In one of those little time capsules that humans are peculiarly fond of making, the National Trust yesterday created a one-day mass blog, One Day in History, to provide what a report in today’s Times called “an invaluable snapshot of British life to future generations.” And, it went on, “for most of us, apparently, in was a day of monotony. We woke up, still tired from the previous evening, commuted to work, spent the intervening hours thinking of home time and went to bed after a coup of tea in front of the television.”:
It’s enough to realise how lucky I am – my day was nothing like that. And although I’m a day late to join that blog-in, and in any case I already have the luxury of offering up my thoughts on a daily basis here, perhaps I should join the solipsistic throng to provide a sample day in the life of a theatre critic and journalist.
As a freelance writer, no two days are ever quite the same, though, and yesterday – which begins with an appointment to the doctor to test my blood pressure, and continues with a trip to Guy’s Hospital to have an ECG done (both, fortunately, normal) – saw “real-life” intervening on more than one occasion. So it’s not just luvvie-land that I inhabit all the time! Though it does sometimes seem that way….
Both before and after medical matters are attended to, my first proper job of the day is to complete and file the first — of four — reviews I’ll be writing of Monty Python’s Spamalot that opened the night before. As a freelance writer, I don’t “belong” to any one publication, so I multi-task for various papers and websites, and I try to make sure that I don’t repeat myself too much between them, though its inevitable that some phrases and thought-processes will get reprised. But given that each outlet has a different tone, voice and word-count, I try to create a balance between them and come to each as freshly as I can.
Often I’ll have begun a review the moment I get home from the opening, to get the creative juices rolling (and getting the hardest bit – where to start – out of the way first); but I do find it’s better to sleep on it (or rather, awake to it) so that I have the perspective of rest, rather the immediacy of the moment after the curtain call, to commit my thoughts to paper (or the web). The first review of the day tends to be the template for the others: the place where I work out how I feel about a show. And that, at least, is accomplished without “interference” from reading the other overnight reviews. It’s inevitable that one could get influenced by one’s colleagues, unconsciously or not; and particularly since one of my other jobs requires me to compile a digest round-up of the principal reviews for a website, which I do next, it helps me to discover where I stand in relation to the others! But the good thing about London is that since there are so many of us, by the time you add in the Sunday press (of which I am also a part) and the magazines (ditto) we seldom produce a true consensus; rather, there’s a range of opinions expressed and you find yourself somewhere on the map alongside them.
So I tend to read all of the main daily papers every day – if I’m in a hurry I might search for the reviews online, but I still prefer the immediacy of newsprint if I’m not, and working out of an office I share, next door the Menier Chocolate Factory near London Bridge (roughly a 15-minute walk from my current home), I get the four main broadsheets there daily, plus I’ll buy the Mail and Express if I’m expecting reviews in them. (I used to buy the Standard every day as well, but since the advent of the deluge of free afternoon papers, I simply search for the Standard review online).
I then write the second of my Spamalot reviews, before doing some online research on the career of Tonya Pinkins, the American actress who reprises her Broadway turn in Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre this week, before going to the National to interview her at 12.30pm. Like a lot of American performers, she makes the job easy for me: she has her own dedicated website, http://www.tonypinkins.com, that not only has full biographical details of her entire stage, film and TV career, but also a cuttings gallery of past interviews. From these, I glean something of the astonishing way she has turned her life around in the last four years: from a single mother-of-four (two of whom she lost to their father in a custody battle over) and was living on welfare, to headlining on Broadway and at the National. I am looking forward to meeting her, but also have a little trepidation: how open will she be about this chapter of her life?
It turns out that she’s completely delightful, and comes to meet me at the stage door personally to escort me up to her tiny dressing room. There, we chat openly, freely and frankly for around 45 minutes; meeting fascinating performers like this, with such a unique story to tell, is definitely one of the perks of the job. (It can also be a penance, when they are not quite as forthcoming and it feels like drawing blood from a stone, but today I’m lucky).
I then walk along the river back to my office – another of the pleasures of living and working in this part of town – and grab a baked potato and some fruit for lunch en route. Back at base, I now file a news story on a new musical coming to the King’s Head for one of the websites I work for; and then write up yesterday’s entry for this blog. As you know since you’re here already, I attempt to update this blog most days, and the although its sometimes a challenge to find something fresh and new to write about every day, I manage to find something to say most of the time (even if today I end up writing about myself!). It is, of course, billed as a ‘newsblog’, so I try to confine it matters that pertain to newsworthy events in the industry, though today’s day-in-the-life-of-a-critic is more personal than that. But the point of a blog is to get personal; and I try always to make it also as immediate as possible, so today I am only making a belated attempt to join the National Trust initiative!
I also have to set up future theatre dates and interviews. As a freelance, I am a one-man band – I am my own secretary, receptionist and invoicing clerk, as well as writer, so there’s a lot of administration to do, from dealing with the avalanche of post that comes in most days with press releases and of course e-mail. Today I discover that I need to file a feature on Spamalot for this Sunday’s paper, so I start setting up interviews for that. And I book a couple of train tickets, to get me to Cardiff this Friday (where I am hosting the Stage-sponsored Educators’ Conference as part of the Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre there) and Sheffield next Wednesday (to see the Crucible productions of The Caretaker and A Number). As a national critic, I frankly don’t get out of town nearly enough, but there’s always so much to see in London that it’s difficult to do so, plus I have – as you can see above – a very full-time day job juggling it all that keeps me here too!
Then it’s a quick walk home and some more e-mail, before driving into town for the opening of The Cryptogram at the Donmar. As long as I get there around 6.30pm (when parking restrictions are lifted), I can always find a secret parking space – don’t ask me where I’ve hidden them! – and it means a fast getaway after the show. The great thing is that I can be home in barely five minutes.
Tonight I’m going to be home even earlier than expected: The Cryptogram runs for just 65 minutes, which means we’ll be out on the streets just after 8pm! What luxury! It does mean, though, that there’s little time for the ‘social’ side of the theatre, when critics get their ‘water cooler’ moments that people in normal offices get every day. Even though we’re on ‘rival’ papers, there’s definitely a critical camaraderie, based on the fact that we see each other most nights and our mostly shared passion for the theatre, and in the enforced intimacy of the Donmar, we’re even right next to each other. I look forward to the Donmar, because I’m invariably next to the Independent on Sunday’s Kate Bassett, and it’s become our ‘date’. (Though tonight she breaks the rules and brings a colleague, but we’re still next to each other!) Before the show, Michael Coveney steals me off for a drink at the downstairs bar next door to the theatre, so I have a short water cooler chat there. And walking back to my car afterwards, I exchange a few words with the Telegraph’s Charlie Spencer, about the critical controversy around Bent that I’ve previously blogged about here and is now erupting into a major story thanks to Simon Callow’s contribution to The Times on Monday.
I head off home, driving over Waterloo Bridge, and notice that the National’s fly-tower is a lit in a bright yellow hue that I’ve never seen before. This drive is another of the pleasures of London life, and I always drink in the view. But tonight, seeing the National ought to have reminded me about a commitment later tonight: I am due back there after tonight’s performance of The Alchemist, to host an event on behalf of the development department events team there, where I’m due to interview a couple of the actors from the show – Lesley Manville and Amit Shah – in the Olivier stalls foyer for their members. Only I have clean forgotten. I go home, my partner cooks some pasta for dinner, and I begin my first review for The Cryptogram – then decide to have an early night. I’m in bed just after 10pm. When I should be at the National! At 3am, I wake up, bolt upright – in a cold sweat – remembering where I should have been, and how impossible it is to turn the clock back. So I get up and try to appease my conscience by sending an e-mail apology to the lovely Development Events manager Denise Yeats. (I can only imagine what she must be thinking….) Later, when I get up again, I’ll have to call her, and also send notes of apology to Lesley and Amit…So the tasks for the next day have already begun….