'Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die' by Amber Massie-Blomfield
“Theatre is a symbol and an expression of an idea: that being with other people is better than being alone.”
If there is one read to keep theatrical spirits high as we emerge from lockdown with still no sign of live performances, this could be the one. Why do you love theatre and why do you love theatres? This book is Amber Massie-Blomfield’s attempt to answer the former through exploring the latter, and it is masterful. ‘A Love Letter to Britain’s Theatres’ appears on the cover, and it certainly is that. In the treasure hunt for the most magical theatres in the country, Massie-Blomfield provides a compilation of bite-sized chunks of captivating theatrical history.
The narrative gives life to the bricks and mortar of the twenty theatres in question, intertwining an appreciation of architecture and theatre. At one point Massie-Blomfield remarks: “it’s all about stones – the stories they contain and the voices with which they speak” and it is the “stories within the stones” which cut straight to the timelessness of theatre. This book is not simply about the buildings, but their setting within the community and landscape.
Massie-Blomfield chose these theatres because they meant something to their communities, to other people and to her. She concedes that there wasn’t a strict screening process and yet this is a sample of how embedded theatre is in British culture. She weaves in tales of heroic fights for the arts, such as the incredible story of Rowena Cade, who rebuilt the Minack Theatre after World War II, protests to keep the Rose Theatre and other examples of theatrical defiance.
Some might think this book would be more of a visual affair, yet each theatre is allotted only a small circular black and white image, but there is no need for more - the writing does the talking here. Massie-Blomfield’s eloquent descriptions manage to bring almost the smell of the auditoriums to life. The nuances of her language give the impression that the theatres are so much bigger than us individuals, that they are meant to outlive the people who created them. She weaves personal narratives into the book, from her first love affair with theatre at Theatre Royal Bath all the way to her job at Camden People’s Theatre. This is not just one theatre, one story per chapter – it succeeds in being a narrative of theatre in this country.
"The nuances of her language give the impression that the theatres are so much bigger than us individuals, that they are meant to outlive the people who created them."
We are introduced to each segment with a curation of seemingly random objects and actions, which distil the essence of that particular building. These bring some consistency and simplicity to the flood of stories and antidotes that follow, products of meticulous research. We learn about the theatres in question through a fusion of current stories and historical tales. Each segment draws to a conclusion by sparking a wider point about theatre in the abstract, concluding the story of the individual theatres, but stimulating new discussions of theatre within our lives.
"Massie-Blomfield illustrates why she loves theatre and puts into words why you do too."
If you are missing theatre, the architecture, the people and the smell of anticipation, read this book! It will remind you of the challenges the arts have faced over the years, and that theatre will, in some as yet unknown capacity, spring back with a fresh new agenda for established and new audiences alike. At a time of uncertainty and worry this book reminds us of why we want theatre in the first place, and why we want to save it. This book has been around for two years but it’s an excellent lockdown read. Massie-Blomfield describes an empty auditorium as “echoing with the absent thunder of a thousand hands clapping”, and that’s how I like to imagine deserted theatres right now, full of expectation. Massie-Blomfield illustrates why she loves theatre and puts into words why you do too.