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Short Shorts 57: Reviews: the good, the bad, and the moral

The public speaks

There’s always a lot of talk, not least on this blog, about how out of step critics are with the public, let alone often with each other. Just yesterday I was reporting here how Rock of Ages has flourished [1] in spite of my own opinions about it, and all power to it.

But it is the public, of course, who nowadays get there before us, too – not just in the sense of seeing a show during previews long before the press night, but also in offering their commentary on it. And it can sometimes make for a surprising press night. On the day that the National’s production Damned for Despair opened, I saw a tweet by Time Out’s theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski:


That had me scuttling to their user reviews, [4] and also over to the Whatsonstage bulletin board for what comments were being posted there [5].

And I found the production almost universally damned from commentators who were despairing. As one put it on the day of the press performance:

Confused, overly long, no real story and terrible costumes. A disappointing night. Very unusual miss by The National Theatre. I have seen all of the productions playing there at the moment and this was the only dud. I can only imagine the press will agree tonight.

But here’s the mysterious fact: the press didn’t, at least not in their entirety. (And that, as I always say, is one of the great things about our still diverse industry; we still have a lot of voices, and we don’t speak as one). On the one hand, there was a one-star pan [6] from the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, which concluded

What a gaudy, exaggerated, dramatic mess. You’d have a much better time going to a Book of Common Prayer matins.

Likewise in The Times, Libby Purves was not encouraging, either:

This 17th-century Spanish religious fable by Tirso de Molina is a classic piece not undeserving of a cast of 22 and a theatre such as the Olivier. Unfortunately, the director Bijan Sheibani and adapter Frank McGuinness have bred a disaster, which despite late (panicky?) cuts has seen a good few seats empty after the interval.

But Libby’s reference to McGuinness’s “uncharacteristically awful translation” was defiantly countered by Dominic Cavendish dubbing it [7] “a fine new version” in The Daily Telegraph, which he went on to say “glisters with invigorating wit”.

I missed the press night myself, so only finally caught it yesterday afternoon, after which I tweeted my response:

But I know that I set my expectations low. I wonder if other critics, hearing the advance word, re-adjusted their critical barometers accordingly.

Is Finding Neverland lost?

Another show that got extremely mixed reviews was the try-out at Leicester’s Curve of Finding Neverland, a new musical developed by an all-American team and Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and plonked in Leicester. It closed there last night (a very weird bit of timetabling to finish a run on a Thursday), but will we see it again?

Of course, Weinstein has deep pockets and an even bigger ego, so he probably won’t want to let it go yet. Just last week I hear that the creative team were back in Leicester, re-writing extensively and even putting in a new song. New musicals are famously not written but re-written. So it is good to hear that they’ve not stopped working yet.

I wish I had been able to go back. When I reviewed it for The Stage [12] in Leicester, I wrote,

This musical about JM Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys feels a little lost itself, stranded between the different worlds it has both come from and seeks to dramatically bridge… But though the show tries to fly, you can see the strings being pulled, in every sense. It feels overwhelmingly old-fashioned, and those without a working knowledge of Peter Pan may be lost, too, never mind trying to see the parallels it seeks to establish.

Still, I found lots to admire, from the spectacular design to a fine cast. Others, like David Jays in the Sunday Times, were far more dismissive, dubbing it “bland… trite…. stupid, dishonest and disappointingly conventional.” On the other hand, Quentin Letts awarded it five stars [13], despite noting, “The production has some rough edges. It is too long and surgery will be needed before it goes to the West End.” But he added, “It has that special quality, a heart as big as a St Bernard dog. If you like sentimental stories, as I do, you will be in two-hanky heaven.”

Will Loserville be a winner for British musicals, or make producers run for cover even faster?

Another musical that was tried out in the summer at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds has already made the transfer, less than four months later, to the West End. Loserville opened at the Garrick on Wednesday, and although I was generally welcoming when I reviewed it for The Stage [14] in Leeds, but noted, “It’s not quite yet a ready-made West End hit.”

Seeing it again this week, I’m afraid it still isn’t, and wonder whether it was rushed to the West End too fast. But I’m still pleased it is there; the West End is crying out constantly for new blood. The musical, in particular, is in dire need of a transfusion of energy that will take it beyond its current reliance on the tried and already tested, whether of new shows from Broadway, revivals of old hits, or plundering past pop catalogues from Irving Berlin to forthcoming shows based around music of the Spice Girls and Whitney Houston. So we need it urgently.

But a lot is riding on it, too. If it is not a success, producers will become yet more risk-averse, holding it up as an example of the dangers of investing in new work that isn’t based on a pre-existing pop/rock catalogue.

Reviewing personal morality

Critics don’t write in a vacuum, but according to their own interests and prejudices. It was interesting last week to see Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times letting us know about about both in his review of Cabaret:

There’s a KitKatClub again now in Berlin, by the way, founded by an Austrian porn-film director, with a dark room, fetish nights, orgies and so on. It promises ‘Parties for civilised people!’. Let’s see where that takes us.

Rolling back to 2006, I remember all too well where Hart believes it may go: reviewing a revival of Martin Sherman’s Bent, he wrote,

We’re supposed to see Gay Berlin as wonderfully hedonistic and liberated, a happy place of sexual permissiveness and excess before the beastly Nazis shut it down.There is no recognition that the individualistic anarchy of these solipsistic bores often leads to a tyrannical backlash.

So, gays and sexual fetishists have only got ourselves to blame for the Nazis. Good to know.

Quote of the week

Composer John Kander, whose Cabaret has returned to the West End, was interviewed in The Times last week by Tim Teeman, who wrote,

Kander thinks about mortality, “a lot. You can’t be 85 and oblivious to it, but that also makes you aware of the value of life. While you’re alive you have to be alive. You’re eager not to waste your time, to fill it with things that are pleasures — and working is a pleasure for me.” After we meet he is seeing a doctor, he smiles, “to find out if I’m dying or not”. I call the next day. “The check-up was good,” Kander laughs. “I may have a few days left.”