‘Slowly it feels as if theatre is coming back to some form of life’ – Stagey Blog Chat with Louise Penn

Theatre fan Louise Penn has been running her blog over on Loureviews since 2012, reviewing theatre shows, books, DVD’s and television. She attends and reviews show both for herself, for broadwayworldUk and northwestend. was able to talk to Louise all about her love for theatre and how she has continued to support theatre through the ongoing shutdown.

Firstly, can you tell us how you got into writing about theatre? 

It was a natural progression from other types of writing. I published some poetry in my teens and twenties, and then academic articles. I used to review films on IMDb and that evolved into a LiveJournal presence in about 2009. By 2011 I had been living in London for a few years and wondered if I could find an audience writing about theatre. My first reviews as a “press” person were through the London Theatre Bloggers but work overtook the ability to really commit as deeply as I wanted to. So, the blog ticked over for seven years before I really got serious about it.

Can you remember what the first show you saw was? 

An amateur pantomime at my gran’s church, which was so awful it became the benchmark for terrible performance for many years afterwards. It also marked my first “on-stage” experience as I was forced to go up and participate in the interactive bits with other children.  The dame was horrific.

How have you been managing during the theatre shutdown? 

It has been odd. I am not someone who draws any income from the sector – I get the odd comp but work long hours to feature and review shows essentially for free. However, although I have not been affected directly by the shutdown in financial terms, I have wanted to support those who have, particularly in smaller fringe spaces. I have tweeted constantly about shows, fundraisers, and the politics of keeping theatres and companies waiting for funding. Emotionally it has been tough watching others worrying about their livelihoods, but also makes me feel there is a real community out there where performers, creatives, tech people, critics, whatever, have really come together to survive and support each other.

Have you been able to keep your blog running during the lockdown? 

Yes, and that was a deliberate decision. The first thing I did was to mention all the London spaces forced to close and where you could donate to them, then I stepped up my reviewing and interviewing. I also ran a Lockdown 100 feature to bring together several online shows streaming across the world, even if I could not fully engage with them. It was important to keep out there, not just to focus on these shows, but to keep my own brand up and running. I feel it may be harder for us blogger critics to get access to (live) shows going forward, with social distancing and reduced audiences, so one decision I have made is to continue reviewing digital productions even when theatres start to experiment with opening in the autumn.

Do you have a favourite show, and why? 

That is a really difficult question! Is there a show I would see no matter what? I think in plays it must be Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I have seen it on stage three times and every production brings the same intensity but a new angle on the piece. In musicals I have a special place in my heart for Les Mis, because it was an early one for me, and it was the biggest spectacle I had ever seen when that barricade came down.

Desert island discs! What five show tunes could you not live without? 

Another tricky question. Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar. Losing My Mind from Follies. How to Handle a Woman from Camelot. People Will Say We’re in Love from Oklahoma. Let the Sunshine In from Hair. I’m an old-fashioned girl.

Old classics or modern marvels? Do you have a preference between the older and newer shows? 

I tend to go for the older shows, mainly because they were my first ones (through films) and because I find them catchier in terms of the score. But I have many favourites in post-1980 shows (which I call “modern”, i.e. within my formative years and beyond). 

What is your favourite movie musical? 

Guys and Dolls. It is my go-to film if I feel in need of a lift. Sinatra and Brando and that glorious Loesser score, and it is also so inventive and fun as a film. I am a sucker for anything featuring the Goldwyn Girls, so this fits the bill.

What show are you hoping will be the first show you see after the lockdown and why? 

I have already seen my first shows, which were Dear Peter outdoors at the Iris Theatre in Covent Garden, and the Jesus Christ Superstar semi-staged concert at Regent’s Park.  I am happy to see anything and everything as they come. I have four indoor shows booked in over the next couple of months so slowly it feels as if theatre is coming back to some form of life. 

Have you felt able to continue to support the industry during the shutdown? 

I have been constantly reviewing, also donating where I can. I purchased the tee, notebook, and masks from The Show Must Go On, and the Terrible Rage bag. I have supported the theatres which mean the most to me and shared as many links to donation pages as I can.  I did my first short videos: that was a bit scary, but I enjoyed the experience. I wanted to do more but felt overwhelmed quickly by the amount of activity going on, so had to make decisions what to do and not to do fairly early on. The number of articles, petitions and fundraisers has been great to see, but a cohesive approach to what has proved to be a catastrophic situation for many took a while to happen.

If you could go back in time and watch any show from the past, what show would it be and why? 

It seems cliché to say it, but I would love to have seen either John Barrymore or John Gielgud play Hamlet. In musicals, it must be Ethel Merman in Gypsy. She had such an amazing vocal belt. To experience it in person must have been amazing.

Have you been watching shows that have been streamed during the lockdown? If yes, do you have a top three and why?

Yes! Birdsong Online, from Original Theatre, is my top choice, and I reviewed it for BroadwayWorldUK.  Following that, Godspell the Concert (Hope Mill Theatre) was stunning, and 52 Souls by Chronic Insanity – the final show in a clever run of digital productions from a Birmingham company I will definitely be following in future: both these shows were reviewed on my own blog, LouReviews.

I would like to thank Louise for her time and her answers to this interview, as well as wish her the very best for the future. Stay safe x

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