mon 05/12/2022

First Person: Tim Walker on crossing over from critic to playwright | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Tim Walker on crossing over from critic to playwright

First Person: Tim Walker on crossing over from critic to playwright

A longtime critic shifts gears to bring Gina Miller and Theresa May to the stage

May ball: Jessica Turner as Theresa May rehearsal images c. Mark Senior

The divide between theatre critics and the theatrical profession has always been a chasm, but occasionally a wire has been thrown between the two and plucky or foolhardy individuals have attempted to traverse it. A three-times-unsuccessful applicant to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in my teens, I managed to turn actor in middle age in Top Hat and Spamalot in the West End.

These were, however, merely stunts dreamt up by producers to promote their shows and my performances were unstartlingly overlooked in the Olivier Awards.   

Now I am on the tightrope once again as I make my debut as a playwright with Bloody Difficult Women, which begins its run at London's Riverside Studios this week. The stakes are infinitely higher: my fellow critics will get to pass judgment on one of their own, it has four real-life characters in it - including Theresa May and Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail - who will both be on my back if they feel I've been unfair to them. On top of all that, I've dared to get into possibly one of the most contentious political issues of our times, which is of course Brexit. (Walker pictured below)

Playwright Tim Walker, also a criticI've seen fellow critics writing plays before. The Daily Mail's Patrick Marmion's include The Divided Laing that was staged at the Arcola Theatre in 2015 and Terms and Conditions at the White Bear. Lloyd Evans teamed up with Toby Young to write Who's the Daddy? which focused on the sexual shenanigans at The Spectator - Lloyd's employer - during Boris Johnson's period as editor. Then there was the former London Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh's play Plague Over England about the actor John Gielgud's arrest for cottaging at the height of his fame.

I recall De Jongh's nervousness around me on his West End opening night, and now of course I empathise with it a lot more than I did at the time. That night meant so much to him, but to me, of course, it was just another job: I was paid to review the play without fear or favour and that's what I did. I expect nothing more - and nothing less - of my fellow critics on my own opening night.

Amara Karan and Edmund Kingsley in 'Bloody Difficult Women'I may have passed judgment on plays for getting on for 30 years, but I always recognised that doesn't mean I can write them. I like to think I have approached the task collegiately and respectfully. My play was originally going to be performed last June, but the pandemic knocked it back to November and then back again to this month. There was plenty of time to think long and hard about every scene.

It helped that I had in Stephen Unwin a total perfectionist as the director. He never saw it as his job to get out a red pen, but merely looked at my play in the round and always from the audience's point of view. He reminded me of some of my best news editors in my early days in journalism in that he'd just tell me from time to time that something wasn't working. That was when I had to rethink, make it better, or cut.

Thanks to Stephen, a former artistic director of the Rose Theatre in west London, I had some of the best tuition imaginable during the lockdowns. The characters in my play started to live and breathe. Two rather dull civil servants called Rosen and Guilden - a nod to Shakespeare's characters in Hamlet - had little if anything to do but explain what was happening. Stephen wanted a dynamic between them. For a while, Guilden became a Muslim woman and Rosen a hard-right Tory, but their fights were too predictable. Then Rosen became an ageing homosexual pointlessly attempting to flirt with a resolutely straight younger man. Suddenly I realised we had a symbol of the play's wider message about fantasy colliding with reality.

What I have learnt is a play that's just written - at least by me - will never realise its potential. One that's rewritten and rewritten starts to make for the kind of entertainment that, with my other hat on, I know I'd enjoy. When the script finally got sent out to the cast, I was no longer under any illusion that my own role had changed radically: I was now the criticised and not the critic. When these smart, sassy individuals suggested they'd be happier saying a line in their own way, it was no time for hissy fits.

All too often, they improved my play immeasurably. This experience has brought me closer to theatre people than ever before, and, as opening night approaches, I realise I am suffering from stage fright a lot more than any of them.

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