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BOOK REVIEW: Break a Leg

BOOK REVIEW: Break a Leg

Nick Smurthwaite reviews Jenny Landreth’s new book… and it’s all about amateur theatre!

Why do we do am-dram? Is it second best to becoming a professional? What are the benefits to mental health and wellbeing?

These are some of the questions posed by Jenny Landreth in her highly entertaining new book, Break A Leg, which is a part-autobiographical, part journalistic quest for some useful answers.

Landreth describes herself as “a child of amateur theatre” who, with her three sisters, used to make up plays, and invite the neighbours in to watch them. Her mum, Hazel, has fulfilled many different roles with the same company, Highbury Little Theatre, on the outskirts of Birmingham, over the past sixty-six years. The young Jenny appeared onstage on occasion as somebody’s daughter, retreating backstage in her teens to the role of sound engineer.

Highbury, formed in 1942, was one of the founder members of the Little Theatre Guild, and had high ideals from the start. “They wanted to be BBC4,” writes Landreth. As with many other leading UK amateur companies, they built their own premises out of an old wooden mission hut they bought for £200 in the Sheffield Road.

In awe of her parents’ dedication to serious drama, Landreth describes the founders of Highbury as “this gang of sincere intellectuals, giving their all for the arts in the 1940s.”

She writes, “Its aims were to make art, not money; to tell stories of real worth and meaning. On the one hand it took itself terribly seriously. And on the other everyone seemed to be having a real laugh.”

As so often in her book, Landreth distils the essence of am-dram in one, or maybe two, pithy sentences.

But it’s not just her story. She has cleverly – and wittily – conflated memoir with the history of am-dram, its practical application and a close look at some of our most venerable companies. These include the extraordinary Minack Theatre, carved out of a clifftop in Cornwall; the People’s Theatre, a former cinema in Newcastle, where Kevin Whateley started out – “a phenomenal resource,” writes Landreth – the Stockport Garrick Theatre, established in 1901 and still going strong; and the Questors in Ealing, West London, launchpad for the world-famous Coarse Acting Championships, among its many other claims to fame.

Landreth also examines a number of long defunct workplace amateur companies, established to foster team spirit and corporate wellbeing, such as Unilever, Harrods, Dunlop and, weirdest of all, Shredded Wheat, run by employee Flora Robson before she went professional. She also travels to Antwerp for the Festival of European Anglophone Theatrical Societies (FEATS), without being entirely clear what ‘Anglophone’ means.

In fact it is an annual competition, founded in 1976, between English-speaking (hence Anglophone) European-based amateur groups. Companies from the UK used to be eligible but not any more because so many European-based companies are champing at the bit to take part. In 2018 it was the turn of BATS (British American Theatrical Society) to host the competition in Antwerp. Each of the twelve participating groups performs a one-act play, subsequently judged by someone from the Guild of Drama Adjudicators.

Landreth writes, “One might think that a competitive element is antithetical to the whole nature of theatre, performance, self-expression and creating. And surely if any art form were created to fit the statement ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part,’ it’s amateur theatre. But we judge all the time in every art form, and certainly in professional theatre, so why should amateurs be any different?”

She answers her own question many times in this book. The reason amateurs are different from professionals is because the vast majority of them, us, are doing it for fun, for the adrenaline rush, for the company, or just to relieve the mono-tony of our humdrum work-a-day lives.

Indeed she spells out in no uncertain terms why am-dram is a force for good: “That it allows us to develop unique talents and gives us unique opportunities. That it is a special community. And also, that amateur theatre is uniquely British; that to be British is to have it imbued in our psyche somewhere and somehow.”

Even more tellingly, Landreth writes, “In the theatre I found my people… people with a range of experiences and stories. People from factories and universities, people who worked in offices or on assembly lines. A community which shared a goal – the show. I could stand on a stage and laugh my head off with this disparate collective, and that was a terrific liberation.”

Given that am-dram is very much an active pursuit, reading about it comes a poor second, but as Landreth has already pointed out, it’s all about the taking part, not the winning.

Break a Leg: A Memoir, Manifesto and Celebration of Amateur Theatre

by: Jenny Landreth

Published by: Chatto & Windus (Penguin Random House).
ISBN: 978 1 784 74275 1
Price: £16.99