Did the shows get worse? Or the critics simply more (world) weary? The Guardian’s Mark Lawson has noticed an apparently sudden propensity for meagre one and two star reviews at the year’s end for productions like Viva Forever! and the Donmar’s Julius Caesar.
As Lawson notices, this month, “there have been more low scores than from a TV talent show judge aiming to gain the nickname Mr Nasty.” And the prime candidates he finds are the respective critics of the Telegraph – the Daily’s Charles Spencer and his Sunday opposite number Tim Walker. He cites Spencer’s one-star notice for Viva Forever and his two-star reviews for Julius Caesar, as well as the Royal Court’s premiere of Martin Crimp’s Christmas play In the Republic of Happiness; but then goes on to say that he seems generous next to Walker, who gave zero stars to Julius Caesar and one to In the Republic of Happiness.
To be fair, the reviews for both In the Republic of Happiness and Julius Caesar were of the divided sort; in the latter case a few came to praise Caesar, a few to bury him (or rather in this case, her). Spencer’s review of Julius Caesar, which protests against “a crass, attention-seeking staging”, concludes, “one begins to feel that it’s not just Caesar who has been murdered but the play itself.”
But as always amongst London’s diverse body of reviewers, others felt significantly differently. For The Guardian’s Michael Billington, Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production is by contrast “witty, liberating and inventive, and taps into the anti-authoritarian instinct that runs through the play…. It is one thing to have an ingenious concept, another to carry it out. And Lloyd’s production proves that female actors can bring a fresh perspective to traditionally male roles.”
Again, for In the Republic of Happiness, it depends on who you read. For Michael Coveney, writing a five-star rave on Whatsonstage.com, “it’s the most tremendous fun for 100 minutes, my favourite play of the year.” Charles Spencer, in a two-star review for the Daily Telegraph, on the other hand loudly complains, “I found myself cursing Cooke, a director I usually greatly admire, for assembling a Rolls-Royce cast and then dumping them in this clapped out Austin Allegro of a play.”
Viva Forever!, however, saw a run of one-star reviews from the Telegraph to Time Out and the Daily Mail that might have even scared Scary Spice. I’ve previously blogged about some of the damning critical responses, and the (highly) selective quotations drawn from a couple of them.
No sooner did my blog on that run last week than the offending ad miraculously disappeared from one of the Facebook pages I had found it on, with the PR for the show claiming that it had only been a visual and not intended for publication. But one of the more intriguing re-writes of history, in every sense, was that undertaken by the Sun, who the day after the opening had Poppy Cosyns – who dubbed herself “a true fan” and admitted that “going to see the Spice Girls at Wembley aged eight was one of the highlights of my childhood” – saying that it “thankfully lived up to all the hype”, and declaring that “Jennifer Saunders has done a great job with the script and the show flows really well.”
A day later, however, showbiz editor Gordon Smart offered an entirely contrary view:
During the Gala Night performance, I felt like shouting: ‘Stop right now, thank you very much!’ It’s always a tough crowd with a room full of famous faces and reviewers, but gag after gag fell on deaf ears. Those that hit the mark, failed to earn a single belly laugh. It’s tepid, lukewarm, average, disappointing, anti-climactic. In short, a bit of a turkey.
I wonder which review they’ll be using outside the theatre?
But if Charles Spencer and Tim Walker are being noticed by Mark Lawson for their one-star pans, what about the critics in his own back yard? He notes, “just yesterday, this paper’s Lyn Gardner gave Aladdin at the 02 in London a rare one star review”. That sentence caused me to pause for a second — just how rare are Lyn’s pans? Because they don’t seem that rare to me.
And visiting Lyn’s profile page on The Guardian’s website, I found that in the last 3 months, she’s also given one star reviews to Shunt’s The Architects (on December 5), Scrooge the Musical (on November 7), and Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour (on October 15). Over the same period, she has also chalked up four two-star reviews (for When the Mangrove Grows on November 23, Bunnies on October 31, The Kingdom on October 31, and The Revenger’s Tragedy on October 17.
It’s the time of year, however, when critics can abandon their star ratings and simply declare their hand about what they liked best (and sometimes worst) across the year. In the print edition of The Stage out yesterday, I provided my own review of the year in London, and named some of my own favourite shows and performances of the year.
These lists are necessarily partial; they reflect our own tastes and preferences. So, for me, three of my twelve acting nominations for actors and actresses came for performances in musicals — Glenn Carter in Floyd Collins at Southwark Playhouse, Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd (transferred to the Adelphi from Chichester) and Rosalie Craig in Ragtime at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. But the latte production also featured in my choice of the worst shows of the show: an apparent contradiction, but Craig stood out by not only surviving but excelling in a production whose concept was utterly misguided (in my opinion). It made her victory all the sweeter; and in fact even had me returning to see the production for a second time (and helped confirm my opinion of both!)
I also noted two musicals amongst my revivals of the year – Floyd Collins again, and the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along. In my category for Best in Musicals, I was able to recognise James Bourne’s score and Nick Winston’s choreography for Loserville; the British premiere of Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola; Howard Goodall’s A Winter’s Tale at the Landor; Morphic Graffiti’s production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Union; Thea Sharrock’s production of The Bodyguard; and Ricky Dukes’s staging of The Hatpin at the Blue Elephant. It was great to be able to acknowledge such an eclectic grouping; musicals come wrapped in packages large and small, and for me, at least, I am pleased that a big show like The Bodyguard can rub shoulders with a tiny one in a Camberwell backwater like The Hatpin.
This is my last column of the year. I’ll be back on January 1 with a look ahead to some of the shows that look promising in 2013. Meanwhile, have a great Christmas and thank you for your readership, support and criticism over the last year.