This is not a review of a play – that’s already been done for us by my colleague Eleanor Longman-Rood – but a review of my first experience of putting one on. Over the past month and one week, Bloody Difficult Women has been playing at the Riverside Studios in west London, and I’d like, now it’s completed its first run, to say a few words about it.
First of all, heartfelt thanks to all The New European readers who turned out to see it. We’re a close-knit community and we support each other. We had a right in these culture wars to have our say on the state our country: that we have now done with our play – and it is very much our play – that takes as its inspiration Gina Miller’s court case against Theresa May over parliamentary sovereignty.
Thanks not least to you it’s got a life beyond the Riverside and a lot more people will now be able to see it. There are some announcements I am not yet allowed to make, but I can say that from Monday the play is going to be streamed. This opens up a huge new audience for the play and a chance for more people to judge it for themselves.
Theatre is a very human endeavour that only happens – at least for a first-time playwright – when a great many total strangers utter the word ‘yes.’ The first of these came from the producer Denise Silvey; then Stephen Unwin, since a play has to have a serious director “attached” to it if it’s to find a stage; and that is what William Burdett-Coutts, the boss of the Riverside before the pandemic, was willing to offer, and, later, Rachel Tackley, who agreed with her predecessor the work was worthy of this illustrious Thames-side venue.
The actors and so many other creatives also had to say that word, too, and to all of them I am indebted. Calum Finlay – our youngest cast member – had previously figured in a review I’d written for this newspaper. It was a nasty, shallow, smart Alec little piece about a play called Switzerland. Calum is a superb and forgiving actor, and, night after night, he brought his lines in Bloody Difficult Women alive, even adding a few great ones of his own, and then, when we had new actors coming in to stand in for those laid low with Covid, he was the first to pitch in and help them.
I hope this experience is going to make me a more human reviewer, but I guess my fraternity is not known for humanity. Of course, the Daily Mail critic didn’t have the guts to review a play that featured its former editor Paul Dacre – Andrew Woodall played him with great panache – and the Times was necessarily sniffy about it as it attacked its owner Rupert Murdoch, but surprisingly it was the Guardian that was the most mean-spirited of the lot. Admitted to an early preview at their request, its reviewer snidely commented about some actors not being as ‘smooth’ as she might have wished. I wonder if this critic understood the difference between a press night and a preview and what little time there is to rehearse a piece in the commercial – as opposed to the subsidised – theatre.
Of the more experienced critics, Michael Billington (now of Country Life) thought the play was powerful, my generous-spirited former enemy Mark Shenton – there was a time we never used to miss an opportunity to take a pop at each other – wrote warmly and movingly about it; and, startlingly, Lloyd Evans of the Spectator pronounced it a “must-see.” Among the Westminster toilers and observers – Rupa Huq, Baronesses Hussein-Ece and Campbell, Lord Pannick, Alastair Campbell, Adam Boulton, Giles Watling, Michael Cockerell and Kevin Maguire, among them – it won even warmer notices. Maybe it was hearing the laughter of Sir Ian McKellen and Geordie Greig – the former editor of the Daily Mail – as our Dacre traversed the stage that pleased me the most.
Miraculously for a straight play in a time of Covid and tube strikes, Bloody Difficult Women played to packed houses night after night. With your help, we made a success of it. I am eternally grateful, and rest assured, so far as this play is concerned, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Bloody Difficult Women is available to see online here.