Wit and wisdom from the chairmen of the boards

<i>Changing Stages: a view of British theatre in the 20th century </i>by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright (Bloomsbury, &pound;30)
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The Independent Culture

It's a standard trick in reviews of comic novels to warn people against reading the book on public transport for fear of making mirth-convulsed fools of themselves. It's a less common tip in reviews of historical surveys of the theatre. I can only report, however, that I was several times betrayed to the voluble censure of my fellow-travellers on a long train journey by Changing Stages.

It's a standard trick in reviews of comic novels to warn people against reading the book on public transport for fear of making mirth-convulsed fools of themselves. It's a less common tip in reviews of historical surveys of the theatre. I can only report, however, that I was several times betrayed to the voluble censure of my fellow-travellers on a long train journey by Changing Stages.

This inspiringly perceptive and lavishly illustrated new overview comes from the joint pens of Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre, and Nicholas Wright, whose many roles include playwrighting, a spell as numero uno at the Royal Court and, perhaps most influentially, associate director of the National and its learned éminence grise during the golden Eyre era.

The book nearly caused my ejection from the train because of the frequency with which its witty, pitch-perfect descriptions and discriminations made me break into whoops of triumph, fists punching the air like a mad football fanatic. There was a moment when I had to retreat to the lavatory to high-five my reflection. This came during the chapter on the musical, when the authors permit themselves a magisterial, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger put-down of Les Misérables.

While precisely skewering that warm feeling of unearned ennoblement that Boublil and Schonberg's global mega-hit imparts ("a faint but guiltless sense of unease about the world's dispossessed"), Eyre and Wright invoke DH Lawrence's superb account of the corruptions of sentimentalism: "the working off on yourself of feelings you haven't really got." This illustrates several of the book's finest qualities: the wisdom and range of its critical touchstones, and the authors' refusal to be compromised by their insider status. They have it in for Miss Saigon, too. The show's producer, Cameron Mackintosh, has been a good friend to the National Theatre with his money. So it must have taken moral courage to "place" so uneuphemistically one of his flagship shows.

Facts, interpretations, emphases and hindsight are the stuff of critical overview. In each respect, Changing Stages comes up trumps, makingsome striking innovations for a book about modern British drama. A chapter is included on the reciprocal effects of Shakespeare ("the DNA" of our drama) and the 20th-century stage, but the authors miss a trick by not incorporating a discussion of the many counter-plays (from authors such as Barker, Brenton and Brecht) that Shakespeare's works have provoked.

The book is combatively alert, too, to what the "British" theatre has taken from the Irish and American, with the Jews standing in the same relationship to the latter as the Irish have stood in relation to the English establishment. The authors' prose is subtly and supply alive to the great paradox of theatre: what is most vital about it is precisely what vanishes without trace and cannot be netted, even in supremely eloquent language.

Changing Stages rightly gives you much to question. The chapter devoted to Brecht and his influence could just as validly have been devoted to Chekhov and his, if the book had been as interested in the commercial as the subsidised stage. Occasionally, partiality leads to shaky arguments. David Mamet's loathesomely loaded, not to say misogynist, Oleanna is defended on the grounds that his concern is "clearly not a journalistic one, to provide a balanced debate" (on the conflict between men and women). This is shadow-boxing. The real case against Oleanna is that it offends against the great Shavian principle that a dramatist should give the best arguments to the opposition. Or do Eyre and Wright consider that Shaw was wearing his merely "journalistic" hat when he enunciated it?

This book was written before the making of the television series, presented by Richard Eyre, that begins on BBC 2 on Sunday. Eyre modestly argues that making programmes about this art form is "as quaint a folly as putting ventriloquists on the radio". But if the series is anything like as good as this, it's time to set your video.

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