Matt Trueman: 'It's time to head off exploring again'
Ten years and 3000 shows after starting his first reviewing blog, Matt Trueman reflects on his next steps
A decade ago, this week, I started writing a theatre blog in earnest. It sat in a dusty corner of the internet under a title that now makes me cringe, Carousel of Fantasies. All the best theatre blogs had preposterous names back then – Looking for Astronauts, Postcards from the Gods, Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire – so I nicked a phrase from an Italo Calvino novel and hoped no-one would notice. I pinched my template from another blogger, switched the colours around, and started writing about the shows I was seeing.
Looking back at that first week now, I'm surprised by the range and the risk of those openings. There was an urban postcard of a play by a deaf performer-playwright at the Lyric Hammersmith, and a performance lecture on quantum physics by Unlimited's Jon Spooner. I saw some forgettable performance art in a warehouse in Peckham, all bodies and clay, and a gorgeous piece of greyscale puppetry by a Dutch children's theatre company. Filter's fun-filled Twelfth Night was at the Tricycle too, dishing out tequila shots and pizza slices in a raucous mid-show sing-a-long. It remains one of my absolute favourites today.
I hardly ever have weeks like that these days – at least, not outside of Edinburgh each August – and the truth is, I miss them.
I feel I'm seeing less and less that I love
When I joined WhatsOnStage four years ago, I wanted to put the theatre I loved in front of as wide a readership as possible. The aim was to alert a mainstream audience to more alternative work; to tell fans of, say, Shrek: the Musical what was going on at the Gate. I hope I've managed that along the way, but more and more, I feel I'm seeing less and less that I love.
That raises two possibilities. One is that I've lost my love of theatre. The other is that there's less theatre to love.
Since starting that blog ten years ago, I've seen close to 3000 shows. That's a lot, that's the job. That changes one's relationship to an art-form certainly, but if anything, it's increased my love for theatre. The best shows still send me out sky high, whether they're serotonin shot musicals or world-shaking new writing, and I've seen some extraordinary theatre this year: Dance Nation, The Inheritance, Notes from the Field, Buggy Baby, Gundog, Five Easy Pieces. However, over-exposure makes it more difficult to love the mediocre. Like any addict, your tolerance rises. It takes harder hits to get the same highs, and the same old stuff just isn't doing it for me any more.
The West End's worth its salt again, proper theatricality has become the norm
And I'm seeing a lot of the same old stuff at the moment. Having made enormous advances over the last decade – the West End's worth its salt again, proper theatricality has become the norm – British theatre feels like it's on the back foot, at risk of slipping into stagnancy, and even retreat. Eight years of salami slicing and standstill funding have taken their toll, and for all our stages are opening up to new voices and new stories, there's a conservativism creeping back in as well.
It means more idiosyncratic work is being squeezed to the side again. Independent artists have been hit hardest by funding cuts, emerging artists seem to be struggling to cut through and international work isn't reaching our stages as it once was – either too expensive or too elitist. These are the artists that drive a theatre culture on.
Given the nature of this job, there's a lot that I'm not seeing
This is, of course, the view from where I'm sitting and, given the nature of this job, there's a lot that I'm not seeing: shorter runs in smaller houses, things off to one side. As I've written, repeatedly, over the years: What a critic chooses to see is a critical act in itself. With that in mind, it feels time to make some fresh critical choices.
Those of you that love WhatsOnStage need a critic who loves what's on stage to steer you through the foothills of Theatreland. For my part, I need to go off exploring again, to seek out and shout about the theatre I love. It's out there, I'm sure, but it's more off-grid than it was a while back. It's in places that a site like this can't always reach and finding it needs a bit of freedom and flexibility; a move away from the round robin of opening nights and star ratings.
So, after four years, this is my last piece for these html pages. There have been plenty of pleasures, not least seeing stages all over the country and loads of shows I'd not otherwise have seen, but a decade after starting that blog, it's time to reset and restart.