Theatre: Don't shoot the messenger

Theatre is drab, dreary and disgracefully dated. At least that's what David Sexton, literary editor of the Evening Standard and smugly self-confessed theatre-hater - and plenty of others besides - would have you believe.

Like a biographer snippily reviewing a rival's tome, Sexton put on his best bad mood and sloped grumpily off to see Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love. The result? Yet another interminable yawn-inducing rant about how Stoppard (pictured) had misrepresented AE Housman, the play's subject, and subjected Sexton to a typically tortuous evening of theatre.

At this point, I should come clean. I appear to be alone in having a degree of sympathy with his views. Despite Richard Eyre's beautiful, respectful production and glowingly sincere performances from Paul Rhys and John Wood as young and old Housman, the play itself left me cold. Using two time periods is already a Nineties cliche of both the theatre and the novel. Some of the exposition is shockingly clunky: poor Stephen Mapes has precious little to do for an awful lot of stage time, other than to ask questions so that young Housman can expound his views. You cannot help but admire its verbal felicities but the note I wrote in my programme after a full 45 minutes reads "Drama anyone?".

With few (if any) changes, the play will probably be extremely satisfactory on the radio but winningly theatrical it is not.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'd rush to a revival of Stoppard's ludicrously clever and funny one-act gem After Magritte and I'm beside myself with glee at the prospect of revisiting his sublime critical sideswipe cum murder-mystery spoof, The Real Inspector Hound - to be revived next month in a brilliant piece of programming with Peter Shaffer's side-splitting Black Comedy. Plays like Jumpers or Travesties link intellectual conceits and dramatic ideas with quite dazzling aplomb. For me, The Invention of Love lacks their theatrical rigour and zest.

However, unlike Sexton, my dissatisfaction with the play doesn't lead me to confuse the particular and the universal. I haven't written off the whole business of theatre as a result of one unsatisfying night out. The cynics among you will probably invoke the Profumo girl Mandy Rice- Davies and say "Well he would say that, wouldn't he?" Well, yes, it is my job, but I do it because (and I'm sorry to be so unfashionably enthusiastic) I love theatre. Worse, I believe it to be important. Besides, I've sat through dozens of well-received movies I loathed but that doesn't lead me to condemn cinema as worthless. Maddie or Always might lead the unsuspecting to think that all musicals are trash, but what about Sweeney Todd or Guys and Dolls? The physical interaction between the audience and the actors at the latter was electrifying. Normally self-possessed theatregoers found themselves yelling for encores. That charge is less obvious at a straight play but there, too, you get the excitement of a live, shared experience. You're publicly involved in a collective exchange of ideas and there's an undeniable thrill at being in the same space as actors carrying you along a playwright's journey to enlightenment. Try watching a dress rehearsal on your own, it's a completely different experience.

What I can't work out is why Sexton bothered to go when he so openly hates theatre. I loathe science fiction so I no longer read it but I'm not about to insist - at length - that others are wrong or foolish to love it.

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