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Review to a kill – Theatre critics and personal attacks

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Theatre critics have long amused readers with caustic write-ups, but personal opinions can be taken too far, says Mark Shenton

Though we critics usually try to dispense our wisdom from the lofty heights of objectivity and long experience rather than personal rancour and short tempers, what we write is, ultimately, only a matter of opinion.

Who, in such circumstances, guards us, the guardians of the theatre world? Ultimately, of course, it is our editors – those that employ us to do what we do can just as easily withdraw that privilege. But it’s also our readers, who have the letters page to register their objections against what we write – though the paper holds the ultimate sanction as to whether it actually publishes them – but in the internet age, there are also numerous discussion boards on which critical dialogue is conducted against us more instantly. I have indeed found my own reviews sometimes subject to this.

Then, of course, the offending and/or offended artists, themselves might reply, and these responses might range from threats of physical violence – the Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh has been famously assailed by Steven Berkoff with these – to more prosaic letters of rebuke. John Hurt recently told how he once responded to a panning from the Daily Express critic Peter Lewis of a play that he was part of in 1965.

“Those were the days when you would leave the party at 4am to read the notices. So I read it, asked someone for a pen, and wrote him a note. ‘Dear Mr Lewis, Whoooooops! Yours sincerely, John Hurt.’ Then I foolishly sent it.” He received a reply a few weeks later. “I opened this beautifully typed letter, which said, ‘Dear Mr Hurt. Thank you for your short but tedious letter. Yours sincerely, Peter Lewis’.” As Hurt commented ruefully, “Never write to a writer. Especially if you’re a bit pissed”.

The Guardian also now offers a weekly ‘right to reply’ to artists to answer their critics that has seen director Tim Supple, for instance, take arms against a sea of insults from the paper’s own critic Lyn Gardner when she reviewed his recent Menier production of What We Did to Weinstein and gave it one star, explicitly suggesting that audiences should not see it.

“Should critics wilfully promote or impede ticket sales?” he asked in response. “They will certainly chip away at the respect artists have for their opinions if they do… Should a critic not look at a piece of work, see what it is doing, give us a vivid appraisal of how well it does it and then leave us to decide whether or not to see it?”

Playwright Richard Bean also used the column to healthily notice how divided his own press for his latest play Harvest at the Royal Court was. “During previews I don’t sleep well. I lie in bed making up alternating fantasy and nightmare reviews. ‘The first great play of the 21st century’, ‘Execrable nonsense’, ‘Surely a knighthood is only a matter of time’, ‘Why, oh why, oh why?’.” He then quotes extracts from reviews which span exactly that spectrum. “On balance the critics have warmed to the play’s mad ambition, deliberate dramatic excess and unfashionable political message. The word ‘extraordinary’ keeps popping up. At least three of the critics have described it as ‘one of the best new plays of the year’. Fantasy fulfilled. Three critics have hated it. Nightmare fulfilled.”

There is also, of course, always the possibility of legal redress. In 1983, Charlotte Cornwell famously sued the Sunday People over a television review in which Nina Myskow said of her: “She can’t sing, her bum is too big and she has the sort of stage presence that jams lavatories.” Though Cornwell won her day in court, on appeal, she was ultimately more than £70,000 down because of the costs she incurred in bringing it to court in the first place.

In the case of Daily Mirror journalist Matthew Wright, a ‘review’ of David Soul in a 1998 play called The Dead Monkey that Wright had not even seen cost the paper £20,000 in damages, plus legal costs (estimated at £150,000 at the time). Wright had claimed that only 45 people were at the performance on a Monday evening and that he had never seen a worse play in the West End. It was shown that not only had he not attended it himself – a freelance had been there on his behalf – but also that it was factually incorrect. The performance in question had been seen by approximately 130. As Soul commented at the time: “I stand really strong on the side of fair comment and opinion about the theatre. I think it’s a cornerstone of the theatre but you have to see the play, you have to be there, you have to have the facts.”

A critic should also, ideally, review the show they are watching, not the past reputation of the participants. It is a critic’s job to come to each new experience as freshly as they can, though with the weight (and authority) of past knowledge.

Recently, Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph went several steps too far in reviewing not just Tommy Steele’s current performance in Scrooge but his entire past reputation. He wrote: “Though Steele is almost invariably described as a ‘much-loved entertainer’, I have never met anyone (with the exception of this show’s producer, Bill Kenwright) who admits to liking him, let alone loving him.”

He repeats an idle bit of showbiz legend – that when Steele appeared in Singin’ in the Rain at the Palladium, he was so disliked by the backstage crew “that they would regularly urinate into the water tanks that were to rain down on to Steele’s head during his performance of the show’s title number”. Whether that’s substantiated or not or just an apocryphal anecdote, he then takes great glee in declaring, “I fear this review is about to perform the verbal equivalent”.

In the total demolition of Steele’s talents that followed, he hardly left himself any room, as he himself admitted, to review the rest of the production.

The result is that the both the production and the reader were failed. And so was the critical art – we have a privileged position of power and we must be vigilant against allowing our personal opinions to not merely cloud our critical judgement but entirely overwhelm them. As chairman of the drama division of the Critics’ Circle, Charlie might be our spokesperson but a review like this does not speak for us all.

* Mark Shenton is theatre critic for The Stage and the Sunday Express

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