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Friday Briefing: Answering a cry for help and different critical reactions

Friday Briefing: Answering a cry for help and different critical reactions

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

"I am stuck across the world and need your help......"

Uh-oh. Is this another of those spamming e-mails, trying to implant a virus in my system if I click on a link? No, this time it wasn't. It was actually a real cry for help, from a 25-year-old independent theatre producer called Hannah Farley-Hills, who runs her new company from the attic of her parents' home and is about to launch a national tour of three shows around the UK - two for venues, one for children's PMLD hospices and respite centres. They kick off tomorrow, (1st February) in Lincoln, with dates in London on 8th and 9th March at Greenwich Theatre and 13th and 14th March at Theatre Peckham. 

But as she wrote to me, "I am in a bit of a sticky situation! Whilst travelling with the aforementioned show to Chile last week, I had a pulmonary embolism and DVT. I am now stuck across the world, unable to fly until mid-February, whilst my company's pilot project begins at home without me."

She went on to say, "I was meant to be van driver, get in technician, show op, workshop facilitator, hospice liaison, marketing coordinator and company manager on the tour - so some serious contingency plans have had to be put in place, sharpish. I have also had to launch an emergency fundraiser to cover my replacement."

She's already succeeded in qualifying for match funding from Natwest Back Her Business scheme for female entrepreneurs. And with all hands on deck, the show is going ahead: "We now have performers driving the van, my stage manager running workshops and James [Baldwin, the writer of the two touring shows] is going to tackle the get-ins!"

It's been quite a baptism of fire for her young career as a producer, and as she has said, "It's scary to think that if I don't do something, there is no one else to pick up the slack. There's always more to do and everything is always urgent. Unexpected hurdles constantly arise, but I take it one day at a time. I've had to teach myself a lot to get here - taking on workers, payroll, pension schemes, a company van. I couldn't feel more empowered if I tried!"

I applaud her efforts - and her resilience in overcoming a big personal challenge now. It's why I'm including this story in my column. It's a lesson for life - and also a lesson learned. Asked if she would tour again internationally, she says, "This will not stop me. I will just wear my flight socks next time!" (And as someone who flies regularly, it's not lost on me, either!) To help with the crowdfunding, visit this crowdfunder here; for full tour dates, visit this website

Star ratings: do they leave you any the wiser?

Critics often complain that our work and opinions are reduced to simple star ratings, especially on theatre posters promoting a show. Usually, the critic whose review is thus quoted is not even named: it's typically just the publication name. So we're doubly disenfranchised, with the rating removed entirely from the context the words of the review itself might have provided.

But that's the game we're in, and as an integral part of the publicity machine, it's a power we cede to producers in return for the simple privilege of a free ticket to see their shows.

Sometimes, though, the star rating becomes part of a confusing narrative that may require a lot of reading not between the lines but the lines themselves. Such was the case with the opening this week of Faustus: That Damned Woman at Lyric Hammersmith, which garnered reviews ranging from one-star (Clive Davis in The Times) to four-stars (Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph).

Most settled somewhere in-between at 3 stars by applauding it for its ambition, with the Evening Standard's Nick Curtis declaring, "The reinvention of the classic as both a feminist and futuristic story is exhilarating at times. And after 500 years, this modern spin is undoubtedly overdue." 

In my own two-star review for this site, I worried aloud: "As a male critic, I'm infinitely aware that there's a danger of this review being turned into an examination of how men treat women who aspire to that greatness or their desire to tell great stories. But a piece of theatre can only be judged on its own terms of whether it engages its audience or not. Despite a highly atmospheric production by Caroline Byrne, and lively performances by a seven-strong cast spiritedly led by Jodie McNee in the title role, I found myself mostly at a distance (and not just because I was seated in row M)."

In fact, it would be fair to point out now that Nick Curtis was seated directly in front of me, so we were very nearly at the same physical distance from the stage. Reviewing is often about recording a personal response, and both Curtis and I did exactly that. 

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