Published in The TLS December 10, 2021
When Michael Billington stepped down as lead theatre critic for the Guardian in 2019, after almost fifty years, it was seen as the end of an era.
While no-one doubted his remarkable wealth of knowledge, in recent years his reviews did prompt some eye-rolling, for reading like he’d seen it all before. So much so that they spawned a Twitter parody account, Michael Billingbot: “Ostermeier’s production at the Young Vic is a pale imitation of David Garrick’s in 1895”, and so on.
This collection of Billington’s reviews and features reminds the reader what a lively, as well as learned, writer and champion of the theatre he remained. It begins in 1992, where its predecessor, One Night Stands, left off. “The title of this book, Affair of the Heart, suggests that two decades of frantic theatre-hopping settled into a deep, long-term relationship”, Billington explains in the introduction.
A certain combative sauciness exhibited in some of those earlier reviews has certainly dimmed – unsurprisingly, given changes in journalistic styles since the 1970s, aside from anything else. Yet it is notable how much heat Billington’s writing, at its best, still conveys – whether that means sending up a flare in recognition of new talent, or torching sub-par work.
Care has clearly been paid, when selecting these reviews, to reflect one of his overarching points – that there has been significant, necessary progress in diversifying British theatre in the past twenty-seven years. For anyone who thinks of Billington as old-guard or insufficiently radical on such matters, the essay “Is there a Crisis in Black Theatre?” from 2000 is instructive: palpable outrage accompanies dismal statistics (at the time, there were only two revenue-funded Black and Asian theatre companies in England, and only sixteen Black members of theatre boards, out of a total of 463 possible places at the table), and is expressed in fighting terms as he suggests the Tricycle’s double bill of Winsome Pinnock and Alice Childress plays “puts to shame much of the gilded shit that currently passes for entertainment in the West End”.
Billington insists that good criticism is itself a creative act, and his writing lives up to his high standards; consider his description of Alan Cumming’s MC in Cabaret, with “rosebud lips and patent-leather hair curling round his ears like quotation marks”, or his persuasive, developing theory that “all plays about monarchy … end up as studies of solitude”. There are also plenty more tart take-downs to relish. “Apparently given their heads, the actors collectively lose them”, in Arthur Miller’s Resurrection Blues. Moby Dick is “the latest nail to be driven into the glittering coffin of the West End musical”; a bad revival of Hay Fever “fell over the Coward [centenary] celebrations like a damp mackintosh”. And Billington has an enjoyable line in groan-worthy puns: Ken Dodd is the “face that launched a thousand quips”; “two Heddas are better than one”, in a double Ibsen review.
Each decade’s selection of reviews is preceded by an illuminating introduction, and occasionally Billington shares the benefits of hindsight – new thoughts on plays he’s changed his mind about, for example, most notably on Sarah Kane’s Blasted. This is fascinating, and I wished such a reflective approach could have been extended to more of the productions he reviewed. For Affair of the Heart is a hugely valuable document of almost three decades of British theatre, but also a highly personal collection. The work Billington reviewed confirms not only the expectation that he covered the “major” openings of the period, but also his own taste.
He remains unabashed in privileging the text above all else – meaning this book forms an excellent introduction to important playwrights as they emerge, from Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams to Lucy Prebble and Ella Hickson. It is less revealing on wider theatrical developments in, say, physical, devised, site-specific, community-based, or immersive theatre. There are seven pieces on Pinter, but zero on Punchdrunk. Perhaps it’s time for a sister collection from a fellow former Guardian reviewer, Lyn Gardner, who did champion such work?
Which leads us, regrettably, to Billington’s invention of a younger female critic to “debate” with. Why his editors indulged this is a mystery. Presumably, it was cheaper than paying a real young female reviewer, of which there are many whose views would’ve been less cringe-inducing.
Being chief theatre critic is also something of a campaigning role – an aspect which acquired particular poignancy shortly after Billington stepped down, when theatres went dark due to Covid. An open letter to Oliver Dowden in July 2020 forms his final contribution to the collection, catching a moment when theatre’s future genuinely appeared imperilled. Despite this, the book ends with a final hope: that Affair of the Heart will provide a “testament to [the] enduring vitality” of British theatre. Amen to that.