First night reviews

Each morning, after a first look at the Spanish newspaper, I download my daily UK newspaper and look at the First Night Reviews section. I think I do it partly to keep in touch with what's going on in the theatre in the UK and also out of habit.

Back when I was trying to make a living writing music for plays in London, opening nights were special. They always started earlier than other performances so that the critics could get their reviews written before the next day's edition closed. This was in pre-internet, pre-computer days so we're talking typewriters and telephones.

Then there'd be the long wait for the papers to appear on the newsstands. I'd buy all the papers and go through them, checking to see if there was a review and then checking to see if there was any mention of the music. I think the best review I ever got was from Jim Hiley writing about The Children´s Crusade in Time Out who wrote: 'And the music by singer/songwriter-to-watch Robert Campbell, is bloody marvellous'. And the worst review? Maybe Frank Marcus writing about Dean in The Sunday Telegraph: 'Robert Campbell will not cause sleepless nights to Stephen Sondheim'. Actually, there are other review for that show that hurt even more!

The thing is, when you read theatre, film and TV reviews in newspapers, there are always positive and negative reviews. You expect it. You can agree or disagree with reviews but you know that the reviewer is giving their opinion.

As an aside, you never know when theatre reviews are going to appear in Spanish newspapers. There doesn't seem to be a tradition of first night reviews and when reviews do finally appear, it's usually after the show's closed. Could there be a connection?

Anyway, when I edited and published iT's for Teachers magazine, we had a regular book review section called First Impressions. The idea of the section was for a team of magazine contributors to give their first impressions of new ELT titles. I naively thought that this meant we could give positive and negative opinions, always stressing that they were first impressions and not in-depth critical reviews. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After we printed one particular negative review, it was implied that we were going to lose an important advertiser. For a small independent magazine, losing a major advertiser can be a major blow. So from then on, we decided that we'd only review titles we felt positive about. If we didn't like a book, we'd simply ignore it. 

I got to thinking about reviews this week because the first two reviews of Beyond have just appeared in the EL Gazette and Business Spotlight. It would be good to read some more in-depth reviews that aren't afraid of being critical (or saying how amazing the course is!). But for the moment, these are welcome...

EL Gazette review of Beyond

EL Gazette review of Beyond

Business Spotlight review

Business Spotlight review

The drama group

One of the original features of the Beyond secondary course that I've been working on over the past couple of years can be found on the Speaking pages in each unit. All of the model conversations and situations on these pages are presented by a group of teenage drama students. There's a different group for each of the six levels and each group has 10 members, reflecting the ages of the students using the course. The drama group kids perform the scenes as if they're in a drama workshop with a few basic props. In fact, we've shot the videos at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford, using the main stage as well as the studios and other parts of the building, giving the videos an authentic drama group feel.

Teachers can use these videos in class or use the audio in class and encourage students to watch the videos at home. One of the main reasons for doing the videos in this way has been to reflect the classroom situation in which we often ask students to role-play scenes or read out conversations. In a way, we're asking our students to bring drama into the classroom as if in a drama workshop. So watching other kids trying to do the same task on video can really boost their confidence.

This past week we filmed the videos for A2 level and the kids were fantastic. It's also been great working with Clark Wiseman and his team at Studio 8. Clark is really good at making the kids feel relaxed. It's not easy acting in front of several cameras with a sound recordist holding a boom microphone over your head, Macmillan editors telling you what to do (not to mention the course authors).

It'll be really interesting to see how teachers and students react to these videos in the real world. Not long to wait!

Ghosts of London

Derek Jacobi enters the Trafalgar Studio auditorium and takes his place in one of the house seats. I assume they're the house seats. Back in the days when I worked in the box office at the Shaw Theatre and Sadlers Wells, we always kept a group of seats for VIPs, friends of cast members, or customers who needed to be re-seated at the last moment. These were called 'house seats' and they were the best seats in the house.

We're at the theatre now to see Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts which was first performed back in 1882. It's still a powerful play today and I'd read in one review that the final five minutes of Richard Eyre's production were hard to watch. When I told this to my mother, she told me that she'd first been to see the play many years ago. She went with the musician Ivor Keys who she was going out with at the time. According to my mother, he'd fainted at the end of the play during those final minutes.

Curiously, we almost didn't get to see the play because we both hadn't been feeling well beforehand. Maybe it was just the nerves, wondering how we'd react to those final few minutes. Inevitably the end couldn't live up to such expectations. It was odd to watch the actors taking their curtain call, unable to smile after performing such a bleak play (for the second time that day).

There were more ghosts back at the hotel. I'd booked a room at the Pullman Hotel on Euston Road. This was long before I met up with the old friend I used to work with there when it was still the Shaw Theatre and St Pancras library (see An adventure in space and time below). When I checked in, the concierge asked me if I'd stayed there before, I wanted to say 'Well, yes, actually. I worked right where you're standing now long before you were born'. I spent many happy days there learning how to 'build a house' by placing audience members in the right seats on large seating plans. And never selling the house seats, of course.

The Shaw Theatre seating plan as it is today.