Review: A Critical Stage (Theatre at the Tabard)

Egos clash against a background of conflict, prejudice and a poignant love.

James Agate (Jeremy Booth), critic for the Sunday Times, has seen them all and rarely changes his opinion, even when he skim reads books sent for him to review and leaves the theatre early to avoid seeing “the whole bucket of bilge”.

It’s wartime, and his secretary, Austrian pianist Leo Pavia (David Acton), is a fellow gay man (and a Jew) treading a difficult path between respectability and being himself. With holes in his jumper, borrowed socks, and the threat of internment, his situation is precarious.

Production photo for A Critical Stage

With pseudo-butler Smike (Sam Hill) and the caretaker’s family downstairs, the gloom of rations and blackouts rarely spoils the long lunches or indiscreet shenanigans, but is always present.

When Agate writes an unkind review of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (Barbara Wilshere)’s Lady Macbeth, the uneasy relationship between those in front of the footlights and those watching in the dark comes into sharp relief.

There’s a dark and almost gallows humour, too, in A Critical Stage, with sick young men invalided out of war, artists left in peril, and the real dangers of picking up a stranger on the street.

Production photo for A Critical Stage

Agate’s multi-volume diaries, all titled Ego are perhaps his best remembered work, following his relatively early death in 1947 (Ffrangcon-Davies lived to see her 100th birthday; Pavia died in 1945).

His abrasiveness and unpredictability, of course, hides a big heart and one that can admire and influence artists even without being one himself.

Name-dropping (Proust, Bosie) and reverence of the divine Sarah Bernhardt and immortal Henry Irving becomes his calling card, and yet he can dictate columns with ease and perform talks in French without notes.

Production photo for A Critical Stage

With the music of Glenn Miller setting the pre-show mood, melodies and records are important to A Critical Stage, whether Mozart, Walton, or Beethoven. The international language which makes us notice the presence of others and allow communication between us.

With four on-point performances complementing each other perfectly, allowing Gareth Armstrong’s script to freely flow, the writer also directs with an eye to place, props, and pacing.

Ultimately this is a play which takes the initial abrasion of the jobbing critic (Gwen refers to Agate’s work as “a trade”) and becomes something far closer to humanity, whether for a dear friend, a religion in peril, or an anonymous encounter outside the law.

A Critical Stage runs at Theatre at the Tabard until 17 June – tickets here.


Image credit: Charles Flint