The drawback of the informal-yet-informed approach, though, is that the writing can sound too personable to suggest clear-eyed professionalism. Landreth has talked to various insider types and chattily relays her findings, but that gives much of the material the sheen of conversational loose change, even when the topic in question (the female-male ratio, am-dram’s meritocratic thrust, the value of royalties) is the stuff of probing scholarship. And the starting point of her childhood attachment to the am-dram scene signals an obvious partisanship. When she declares in an afterword that she was left cold by the Daniel Radcliffe-led production of Equus – “I am missing that feeling of engagement” – it reads like a foregone conclusion.
Jenny Landreth’s Break a Leg is, in that context, a more honest account of the modest ambitions of most amateur theatre — though less diligent as a history, and the author herself sometimes gets in the way. It’s entertaining to hear about her parents’ courtship as members of Highbury Little Theatre in the 1950s but irritating to know how she feels about going to lunch in the Army & Navy Club (‘I’m more a wipe-down surface and things-with-chips kind of person’) to meet veterans of the Midland Bank Dramatic Society — whom she paints rather as an anthropologist might describe a lost Amazonian tribe.
There is a wistful look back to sponsored workplace companies too: happy employees at Shredded Wheat, at Dunlop, at the Midland Bank. Again, reading about that in this glum age of solitary WFH causes a pang or two. There’s also a digression on the interesting business of how licences and rights work. Landreth is good on the importance of buildings and their societies’ love of them, from tin huts to the adventurous cliff setting of the Minack in Cornwall (which covered itself in glory this summer by selling out Educating Rita in all weathers). Yet the recurring core of the book is a return to Highbury, where her mother is still soldiering on.