As a theatre promoter and reviewer for my website, East Midlands Theatre.com, I am often being asked about the role and how it all works so I thought I would give you readers a bit of background into the life of my all consuming theatre passions.
You like to review plays but have you ever written any plays yourself?
Yes, I have written a full cast stage version of A Christmas Carol and also a one man dramatic reading of an edited version of the same novel. The first was presented at The Lace Market Theatre in Nottingham 2008 and the one man version has been done by me in Nottingham and in Karlsruhe in Germany. Part of it was in German. The Nottingham Post featured the full cast version as one of their top ten productions of the year including professionals and theatre reviewer Alan Geary called it ‘superb’ and that ‘It captures emphatically the enduring potency of the original’. Martin Berry directed the piece.
I have also written a play called Greetings From The Trenches (two handler 1M 1F) which was successfully performed in Karlsruhe Germany Dec 2014. It was written in response to the 1914-1918 Centenary. Classical singer Emma Brown helped to create the work and German born Thorsten Feldman translated the poetry from English to German.
Do you get paid to write and review?
Reviewing is a voluntary job on the whole – certainly for a regional reviewer like myself and my colleague Kathryn McAuley, at East Midlands Theatre. Of course one gets the free tickets and chances to attend press nights. Because we have built up a trustworthy reputation over the six years of doing this job the structuring and organising of our days gets more complex but also more exciting. We consider ourselves very professional in what we write and do. We also find ourselves being invited to watch professional rehearsals at three of the major theatres we serve. These opportunities are rare and we find them very insightful in seeing the production during its rehearsal stages. It is a deep privilege to be so closely involved in this way and we hope we do it justice in our writing.
When do you get time to write the reviews as you must get home late after the shows. How long does it take you to write a review? Do you take notes during a show?
Last question answered first. No I do not take notes during the show. I feel it would distract anyone sitting next to me. In the early days I did try that method. Then found I couldn’t even read my scribble in the savage light of day! I tend to do a fair amount of research before going to see a production so I have a general awareness of the story and history of the play. The press officer at each theatre often sends promotional material in emails months before and cast details too so that helps inform me as well. Quite often a certain theme or aspect of a play will spark off something valuable to write about. We use the promotional information in our theatre promotions online.
It takes as long as it takes to write a review. From our point of view it needs to be interesting, insightful and intelligent. If we can throw in a bit of humour all the better. On average you are looking at about two hours to write a good review.
When I first started I wrote for The Reviews Hub and they ask for the review to be with them by midday the following day so there is a pressure to get it written fairly quickly when one gets home. This can mean you are up until past 1am drafting and editing your review to then read it through thoroughly and email it to the editor. It is hard work when you have a day job to attend to as well. It is critical you get all the names correctly written as the editor will pick up on any mistakes or any sloppy writing. Dance pieces with a largely foreign ensemble can be the hardest to get right as the names are so exotic and unfamiliar. Sadly they are not all called Joe Bloggs from Joe Bloggs Dance Company.
Contacts with important people in the theatre and dance worlds are built up slowly over time and I find that having a facebook connecting page and Twitter presence invaluable to promote things through social media.
Now that I run my own website I vary the time I write the review. If I am really tired I simply go to bed and write it in the morning. Sounds easy huh? Well, I have to be at work for 7am so I am often writing at 4.30am to get the job done. Myself and Kathryn also put a lot of hours in on our own personal time as we are both passionate about doing an excellent job for our readers.
You seem very knowledgeable. Do you have a Degree or Masters’ qualification?
I have a BA (hons) in Performance and Visual Arts. I have always been passionate about the theatre and love to keep current with what’s going on in the theatre world. To do so I read the weekly The Stage newspaper and various online journals. I have also reviewed three plays for Big Issue Online.
For a while I wrote for Sardines Magazine which is a quarterly magazine aimed at the amateur sector but often features interviews and features about the professional world. Through my writing for them I vicariously learned a lot of editorial skills and ways to draft an interview and write features. The pieces I wrote for them were low paid but it was an invaluable experience for which I was very grateful. Here is a breakdown of the work I did for them. Plus, I got chances to meet some very interesting theatre practitioners.
Issue: 22 Cover interview with actor Warwick Davis. Feature – Sing When you’re Twinning.
Issue: 23 Twenty-one page Phil Lowe feature on plays connected with WWI Centenary Issue. Included features on War Horse, The Hired Man, Oh What A Lovely War, All Quiet On The Western Front, Our Friends The Enemy, Dr Scroogy’s War (Interview with Howard Brenton), Private Peaceful, An August Bank Holiday and The Second Minute.
Plus personal interview with John Godber, Joe McGann and Shobna Gulati about the then forthcoming April In Paris tour.
Issue: 24. Feature about my own experience of playwriting and performing in Germany with my piece Greetings From The Trenches.
Issue:25. Cover interview with Barnum’s lead man Brian Conley.
Issue 26: Feature about the controversial idea and practice of tweeting live in the theatre.
Issue: 27 Playwright spotlight. interview with award winning writer Mike Kenny looking back on The Railway Children, and Derby Theatre productions of The Odyssey and Solace Of The Road.
Issue: 28 Interview with David Longford about a community production of The School for Scandal celebrating 150 years of existence at Nottingham Theatre Royal
Issue: 29 ‘Little Wonder’ piece about actress Rebecca Little. Nottingham Playhouse favourite.
Issue: 30 Christchurch Theatre Club for first ever adult production of Cats. Twinning news for Lace Market Theatre.
Issue: 31 University Challenge. Piece on Nottingham New Theatre at Nottingham University.
Issue: 33 MADD (Midland’s Academy of Dance and Drama) Half Century celebrations.
Your reviews are very positive reading and I wonder if you have had similar things written about your own acting experiences?
Well yes, we like to retain strong positive aspects in our writing and interestingly I have dug out some of my own personal reviews from the dusty bottom of my theatre memorabilia box. These are personal snippets from half a dozen or so of my favourite plays to be part of as an actor. I have also had some fun today creating some rather ‘Phil Lowe’ centred poster type images. I hope you like them and don’t feel I am being too immodest. I am pretty proud of my successes on the stage over the years.
The Crucible: ‘Phil Lowe, as Governor Danforth, a man in an unenviable position, and in a much smaller part, Pearl Beddows, as Rebecca, the voice of reason, make notable contributions.’ Luckily Alan Geary the reviewer didn’t see me sweating over my under rehearsed lines in the dressing room every night during the first half!
Abigail’s Party: … Casting is outstanding: the five contrasting characters are played with subtlety. There’s boring workaholic Laurence (Phil Lowe) and his sexually frustrated wife Beverley (Alison Hope) with their pooterish accents. The social embarrassment and awwarkness, the inter-marital tensions, the flirting between Beverly and Tony (John Parker), the faux pas from Angela (Holly Gillanders) and more, are beautifully done.
Play It Again Sam: This must be one of the best shows I have seen at the LMT. A superb ensemble cast with no weak links. It seems unfair to single out any particular actor but Phil Lowe as Alan Felix must have a space to himself. Never off the stage, all Woody Allen’s comic mannerisms are word perfect to boot. The acting of all five members of the cast as individuals and in support of each other was clearly in evidence. Their joy in presenting the show with director Max Bromley’s help was infectious… The very quick costume changes was done with effortless precision but doubtless took weeks of practice to get right… If I’d closed my eyes I could have been in a mid 1980s Manhattan apartment with Woody himself. A totally hilarious evening by a very skilled amateur cast. Unmissable.
Frozen: From the moment we hear his harsh and fractured ramblings and see his awkward gait, darting glances and madly rolling eyes we’re convinced that Ralph (Phil Lowe) is a serial killer. This isn’t caricature, this is frighteningly accomplished acting. And in the end Lowe makes his character rather pathetic… There’s strong language and revolting dialogue but it’s never gratuitous. Thematically it’s deeply upsetting – obviously. It’s also sometimes touching. Despite the worrying confusion between the concepts of psychopath and paedophile, as a piece of theatre it could hardly be more rewarding.
Comedians: … the real aggression comes from Gethin Price, a violent man driven by hatred and resentment, played brilliantly by Philip Lowe as a weasley, white faced clown. If humour, as playwright Griffiths says, has to be based on truth, then perhaps this is the best kind. Only you don’t laugh… Comedians is a thought provoking play, given a marvellous production by a first rate cast.
The Dresser: If there were Oscars for amateur actors, Philip Lowe would surely get one for his performance in the title role of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Robin Hood Theatre – Averham. It is a portrayal that runs the gamut of emotions – from prissy and pedantic to supportive and loving. Lowe is on stage for all but a few moments and sustains the role magnificently. He manages to attract and hold the attention without dominating the action, flitting hither and thither, fussing over his master and protecting him from unwanted intrusions, especially, one suspects of reality.
There have been some plays that never got reviewed such as my one man performance in Alan Bennett’s A Chip In The Sugar only every played for four performances in a theatre twinning event in Nottingham’s twin city Karlsruhe in Germany.
Then there was the time that one day before The Lace Market Theatre was about to present a brilliant production of the controversial play Festen an actor suddenly dropped out. It was a real challenge to learn his few lines as Kim the manic alcoholic chef but I loved it. There was a real buzz each night and the standards were really professional.
Sometimes a show presents itself that you simply have to do. You audition and hope for the best. This has happened to me with Play It Again Sam and a few others but I recall being especially interested in playing manipulator Nils Krogstad in Ibsen’s A Dolls House. I just loved the language and the pure desperation of the character.
How many plays have you been in over the years?
At a quick count up: Performance: Sixty plus: Director: three. Collaborator: Ten. Accent/voice coach: three.
How many plays have you seen in your life?
Now there’s a question! Not enough probably. It can boil down to the simple cost of travel to visit a venue even if you are not paying for the ticket. As a fervent theatre goer in my twenties and thirties I paid for and saw hundreds at the old Derby Playhouse in the 1980/90s often two or three times each. At the time I saw some shows in London and mainly big West End musicals. When I did my degree we were encouraged to see and be learnedly and structurally critical of many different types of theatre. Of late we at EMT have seen hundreds across the East Midlands region and some new musicals in London.
Do you ever actually buy theatre tickets?
But of course! There are a myriad of reasons that I would buy a ticket or two. Firstly to support the theatre and the theatre world but usually the desire to see a show one is not actually reviewing or perhaps want to see a second or even third time. Theatre and particular shows can be pretty addictive you know!
Is it not really difficult squeezing two hours of a show into 500 words?
Generally we feel that it not important to re-tell the story on stage especially what might be deemed as spoilers. We are here to encourage theatre going not to wreck the whole experience by telling all and sundry. Finding something relevant and pertinent to talk about within the themes helps as does being positive generally.
Have you ever seen any complete disasters or things go badly wrong?
Not complete disasters no. Occasionally a technical issue may occur and in the worse case scenario a show may be stopped until safety issues are resolved. This is rare and even when it does happen we feel it it hardly important to point out the one off ‘mini drama’ within the drama. The negative interpretation of ‘gleeful’ is not in our theatre vocabulary. As to awful shows; some pop up occasionally and some are difficult to write about from a personal point of view. Here the idea of the ‘audience in general’ attitude often helps in interpreting the piece.