Book Review: 50 Women in Theatre by Naomi Paxton, Susan Croft and Gabrielle Brooks

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Series Editor: Cheryl Robson

A who’s who of women’s contributions to theatre feels like a long overdue reference publication which Naomi Paxton, Susan Croft and Gabrielle Brooks have addressed in their new book 50 Women in Theatre edited by Cheryl Robson. Taking a global as well as a historical perspective, this volume is essential reading for anyone hoping to celebrate the influence of female writers, performers, producers and creatives.

Opening with three essays exploring different kinds of types of contribution, Paxton’s piece discusses the early pioneers, Croft the post-war era and Brooks (recently seen in Jouvert in the West End), offers an assessment of post-pandemic opportunities while pointedly exposing some of the “closed shop” practices that limit opportunities for women and those outside the select inner circle. While these articles are essentially lists of women and productions, dating back to the seventeenth-century, there is some value in seeing the growth and breadth of their impact in print.

The remaining sections of the book are devoted to individual profiles of significant women, divided into ‘Pioneers and Legends’ and a collection of mini-interviews entitled ‘Women in Theatre in Their Own Words’. Invariably with a selection of 50 there is plenty of debate to be had about who is left out. And while none of the women in the book should be omitted, there are easily 50 more who could be included.

Many of those profiled continue to work and have had long careers, but a book like this should be as interested in the future as it is the past and present. An additional essay or profile on theatre’s rising stars and those making significant impacts would add additional value; those like director Marianne Elliott who is name-checked in a couple of essays, but is, arguably, one of the only women to break through to superstar director status and is almost at the point where her name alone is distinctive enough to sell a show. Likewise, the work of producer Katy Lipson in seizing opportunities to tell new kinds of stories on the biggest platforms, while writers like Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Lolita Chakrabti and Natasha Gordon are introducing the West End to valuable new perspectives, voices and experiences.

If the biography approach has a fault, it is that it lacks analysis, so rather than merely listing and describing, it could have been more interesting to think more about the ways women’s contributions have changed theatre. The women in this book are more than a list of productions; they have fundamentally altered how theatres operate and taken every chance to advance the art form. For example Caryl Churchill upended structure and form on stage in a way that is entirely distinct, while Sonia Friedman has developed a formula for success that has transformed commercial theatre and its relationship with audiences and critics.

On that note, the creation of theatre is only half of the process, so what of the critics, a whole side of the theatre industry not even referenced here but has a vital intermediary role in the transition between theatre-makers and audiences – a paragraph or two for prominent arts writers including Lyn Gardner, Libby Purves or Sarah Crompton would also enhance the depth of the book. As a publication, 50 Women in Theatre is comprehensive and a good thing to have, an important collection of talent around the world. Yet, is it enough just to show that women were there without assessing how they are shaping the agenda?

Published by Supernova Books on 7 October 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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