A ghost from the past... James as Quasimodo in one of his many productions at CambridgeEd Quekett

Having acted in twenty-odd plays in Cambridge, I feel I had a wonderfully rich and diverse experience. This experience was by no means unique; nor was it uncomplicatedly brilliant. Indeed, Cambridge theatre has the potential for such brilliance that the ways in which it is sabotaged are cause for deep melancholy. None of what follows is especially profound. Now and again, though, a little simplistic idealism is no bad thing.

When I first entered the ADC Theatre, I was staggered at what might be achieved. Here was a chance to escape the strictures of academia and plunge into a fantastical dressing-up box. Here was a sense of limitless possibility. Then came the fall. Whinging was endemic in Cambridge theatre. Then as now, the creatives regarded critics with contempt: comradely, good-natured, basically innocent. More troubling was that the creatives often had great contempt for each other. Later came the standard pattern of the online comment war: everyone whinging incontinently about each other, with critics whipping up journalism that seemed designed to provoke. Toxic all round.

University play-makers emitted quiet cheers when Stephen Fry wrote the following in his autobiography:

‘Many at Cambridge will tell you that the drama world there is filled with ambitious, pretentious, bitchy wannabes and that the atmosphere of backbiting, jealousy and greasy-pole rivalry is suffocating and unbearable ... Such swine specialize in second-guessing the motives of those who are brave enough to commit to the risk of making fools of themselves in public and they are a blight on the face of the earth.’

Fry speaks sense. There are those who invest time and energy in theatre, and, shockingly enough, get something out of it. There are others who are happier to whinge at a safe remove. But even Fry’s pointed and commendable whinging overshadows the unique joys of the theatre here.

Beyond anything, Cambridge theatre is an environment of possibility – unbridled, exciting, energising possibility. If you love theatre and are even slightly ambitious, you’ll have a grand and extraordinary time. It’s easy enough to see where the whinging comes from. It’s always easier to blame others for our failings. Anything instead of confronting our own faults and changing accordingly. I know I’ve wasted countless hours feeling miserable about not getting to play certain parts. But that didn’t mean I went round blaming everyone else. It was a wake-up call to abandon self-pity and attempt something constructive. Possibility – always!

Thanks to whinge culture, theatre’s petty ephemera too often take precedence. I feel it is the duty of creatives and critics alike to do service to the towering possibilities of Cambridge theatre – if only to ensure they’re not taken for granted.

For example, actors in Cambridge can be doing so much more. David Mamet makes a thrilling case for ambition in actors: ‘Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts.’ Suddenly a reviewer’s opinion seems quite irrelevant. But why should we settle for anything less? There are far greater heights than a five-star review. There’s great fun, as well; I’ve yet to encounter a better reason for appearing in a play than fun. I delighted in the fact that one week I might be grimacing in some preposterous musical; the next committing suicide as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The two were richer in harmony. All that matters is creating work that satisfies you.

Equally, I believe that critics can be doing more. Critics are often accused of being failed actors or directors. Which is horribly conceited on the part of actors and directors. As Michael Billington points out: ‘it’s nearer the truth to say that we find our emotional energies released by appraising the work of others.’ Criticism is as creative an enterprise as any other, and there’s no excuse for a lack of ambition. Or an absence of love. Kenneth Tynan, perhaps the best critic of the last century, said that he regarded himself as ‘a specially treated mirror recording a unique and unrepeatable event.’ No less than acting, criticism is serious work: never mere opportunism, but preservation and evocation. Raging at shoddy, ill-considered criticism is no less justified than giving a negative review to shoddy, ill-considered acting. Again, why should we settle for less than our best?

James blogs about theatre at Bottled Lightning 


Rivkah Brown's original article can be found here

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