You got a friend in me

You got a friend in me

29 March 2018

How do you review shows by your friends? asks Ava Davies

It just so happens that in the first year I’ve come to NSDF, when my job happens to revolve around responding to shows, that several of my friends have had their shows selected. Emily Davis, Ben Kulvichit and Nat Norland of Speed Death of the Radiant Child and Eve Allin, Helen Morley and George Brooker of Seeking Intimacy (of course, they’re not the sole contributors to their shows, nor the only people involved who I respect and admire). They’re some of the most talented, thoughtful, generous artists I know.

There is an obvious conflict of interest here. I’m on Noises Off. I’ve written mixed and negative reviews of various shows here this week, of people who have worked equally as hard as my friends, of people I just happen to not know. How will it look – how will I feel – if I suddenly burst forth with effervescent responses to Speed Death and Seeking Intimacy? I need, personally, to interrogate my reactions to the shows (because to be honest, I’m not sure how much anyone else cares. It’s student theatre. It’s not that deep.) But then I can’t just not review their shows; I want to support and provide feedback to my friends. Also, I do just love both these shows and I want to tell everyone at the festival exactly why. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t flawed. In thinking about how and why I review my friends’ shows, I have also had to consider why I review in the style I do.

I saw Seeking Intimacy almost a year ago now, in its original production at Warwick. I had been depressed: I had just dropped out of Warwick, I was listless and hadn’t been to the theatre in months. The show felt soft and generous and seemed to be imbued with the personalities of the wonderful people who created it. I can see Eve in the delicacy and precision of the poetry, I can see Helen in the way she’s directed her actors to move simultaneously as individuals and a community. It’s a mix of performance art and theatre, I think, which is something people miss when they watch it. You have to let it wash over you, cool water streaming over flushed skin.

I think it’s a beautiful piece because of and despite the people involved in it. I think I understand what they’re going for and I think they get there. I want to judge work within the parameters that it sets itself, as much as possible. I can’t divorce it from myself – that’s not the type of criticism I want to write. It would be disingenuous to myself and to them. I haven’t seen it in Leicester yet – that’s tomorrow. That glowing opinion could well change, and I want to strive to be as helpful as possible to the production’s cast and crew.

What helps is that these people aren’t just my friends, they’re my collaborators and peers too. I’ve worked with them on shows. I’ve been in rehearsal rooms with Helen working on my own texts and I’ve critiqued the first drafts of shows Eve has emailed to me. Late at night Ben has read and given the all-clear to reviews I’ve written and George is constantly being sent messy drafts. It’s symbiotic because our friendship isn’t just a friendship – it grew out of the fact that we were collaborators first, and became friends during and after. It arose partially because we respect each other’s work, and me reviewing their show won’t change that. Part of it is viewing criticism as not an adversarial thing, but as a discussion’s starting pistol.

Speed Death is an interesting one for me because I genuinely believe it is one of the best pieces of student theatre I’ve ever seen. I saw it back in November and I wrote a review/response on my personal blog. It’s one of the pieces of critical writing I’m proudest of (partly because Chris Goode retweeted it and said it was an excellent piece nbd) because it felt like it was synthesising emotion and subjectivity in a way which more theatre criticism should be like. I can’t write the pieces Mark Shenton writes. I don’t want to. If anything, I want to express to the reader the emotions I had in a certain show, those inexpressible and irrepressible feelings that bubble up in your chest when you see a show that makes you feel things that you can’t quite understand. My job is to try and put those into words, whether I’m writing a play or a review.

I miss writing purely about shows that I loved – or not even shows that I loved but shows that made me feel properly knotty and messy. Speed Death is that to me. I know people won’t like it. I get why. It’s dense and impenetrable, often unnecessarily obscure and distancing. But I think, again, like Seeking Intimacy, you have to let it do its work. You have to trust it. Sit back and let it take you away with it. You don’t have to understand everything and you shouldn’t. I love these shows partly because they don’t scream their themes at me. They have enough faith in themselves to let the work speak for itself. But again – I haven’t seen Speed Death in Leicester. I think I will be less effervescent than I was in my initial review. Of course I will. I’m not going to write the same review. I want to engage with it in a different way this time round. I think I need you to trust me, and I need to trust myself and my judgement too.

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato