I have long said on this blog that reviews are only ever one person’s opinions, and we sometimes have as many different ones as there are critics. And that ultimately, whatever we say, it is the public that decides anyway.
This week provided striking proof of both facts with the West End opening of Barking in Essex at Wyndham’s on Monday night. Immediately after the show, I checked in (as I usually do) with a tweet of my immediate reaction:
Just back from the opening of @BarkingInEssex, which traps an A-list cast in a Z(zzz) class comedy. A shocking waste of talent & an evening.
— Mark Shenton (@ShentonStage) September 16, 2013
Typically I write a series of tweets, but on this occasion I could hardly summons the energy for more so left it at that.
But texting with a colleague on another paper later, I discovered it wasn’t an opinion necessarily shared, as I expected to be, by everyone. “I liked it! Not perfect but very amiable… To me it’s what Alan Ayckbourn would be like if he was funny.” Ouch! Well, that’s definitely a difference of opinion (since I’m a big Ayckbourn fan and do find him richly funny).
And the reviews I’ve seen so far bear out this difference of opinion, running the gamut from one star (Evening Standard and Whatsonstage) to four (Daily Telegraph), with two (Guardian, Financial Times) and three stars (Daily Mail) in between.
The most vitriolic was Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage:
This isn’t Joe Orton. It’s not even a student-like imitation of Joe Orton. It’s just irredeemably and gloriously bad. There are no other contestants in this year’s Worst Play of the Year category: this has scooped the pool already!
(Actually, Michael wasn’t at the Globe on Wednesday – I think The Lightning Child may have just scooped it to that prize).
At the other extreme, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph dubbed the play “filthy but oddly endearing”, and revealed, “I laughed a lot during this play and so did my wife who is usually more prudish than I am.”
In between came more muted responses, like Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times, who tried to ponder why it was being done at all now, several years after its author’s death:
There must be a reason why it took eight years for this play to be staged (Exton himself died in 2007): I incline to the view that this is because it isn’t much good. There must, similarly, be a reason why it is now being presented: that, I think, is because the likes of TV series The Only Way Is Essex have blurred the lines between indictment and endorsement of these values, so that a production like Harry Burton’s here can now both have its cake, by satirising such brainless excess, and eat it, by ensuring the satire is so toothless that the whole affair becomes simply a bit of raucous fun. Supposedly.
But will these reviews matter one way or the other anyway? The next day the show’s press representative issued a release, declaring that it opened to “advance box office sales of over £1.5 million and climbing, with Lee Evans attracting a whole new audience of first-time theatregoers.”
And it occurs to me now that that it could possibly be the sort of theatrical event that reminds people of a TV sitcom, but with post-watershed language, for which it simply may not matter what critics say.