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Critics onstage, offstage, but not in print

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I’ve been chronicling the worrying threats to serious critical coverage in the national press, highlighted by the recent announcement that the Independent on Sunday had summarily fired all of its critics and would no longer be running reviews at all.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happening, more that it’s taken so long for it to happen. In Richard Eyre’s brilliant book National Service, his diary of a decade at the helm of the National Theatre, the entry for Decemberr 11, 1995 reads:

I went to Irving Wardle’s farewell lunch. He’s been fired from the Independent on Sunday, because they have to pay him too much, or he writes too well, or he takes theatre too seriously. He’d asked me to make a speech, and I felt like I was declaring the end of an era. Irving made a very funny speech about the things he wouldn’t miss, which included deciphering the plots of the Jacobeans and seeing plays by Steven Berkoff and Howard Barker.

So Irving was shunted into an early retirement, being replaced in turn by the (presumably cheaper, financially speaking) Robert Butler, then Kate Bassett. (An interesting coincidence: both of them are graduates of the same Cambridge college – Corpus Christi, as am I. And also Fiona Mountford of the Evening Standard; there was obviously something in the high table wine there! My ‘moral tutor’, as they’re quaintly called at Oxbridge, was Michael Tanner – himself an opera critic for the Spectator magazine).

But if Irving, who still attends Critics’ Circle meetings regularly and is always an elegant pleasure to see, is happily avoiding the plays of Berkoff these days, Libby Purves – his current successor on The Times (which he had left to go to the Independent on Sunday) – is still finding herself harangued by Berkoff’s plays. But she must be some kind of masochist, or at least a shoe fetishist, because reviewing his current Edinburgh show An Actor’s Lament for The Times, she writes:

Let us not forget that Steven Berkoff has other talents than infuriating Twitter ladies in rash interviews. His show in Edinburgh, which opened on his 76th birthday, is a glorious, iambically elegant rant about actors, playwrights, directors, audiences and — ahem! — critics. We are a “squalid mass of bilious scum, tone-deaf, half-blind, rejected hacks, meddling, grubby, half-baked Oxbridge dropouts” offering mass opinion for loutish editors. It’s rather wonderful. I am in love at last with the pitiless phenomenon that is Berkoff at full throttle (though it may have been the lurid green snakeskin shoes that sealed the deal).

So much for actors on critics. What about critics as actors? Tim Walker, the Sunday Telegraph’s theatre critic, recently reported in the daily Mandrake column that he also writes for the Daily Telegraph, that he is to make his West End debut in Top Hat on September 18, playing a waiter and an old seadog for one night only.

As Tim modestly writes,

It is the casting decision that will astound the West End: Mandrake is to star in the hit Olivier-award winning musical Top Hat. “Few, if any, men epitomise the timeless sense of old-world style and wit our show is all about in quite the way that you do,” I am told by Kenneth H Wax, the show’s perceptive producer. “You have played Mandrake to perfection for more than a decade in print, and occasionally on television, and this role we are giving you – in fact roles – will demonstrate your range and versatility.

Does this mean I may have to go to see it again that night? I have just consulted the first night diary and there are already clashes that night for both Rory Kinnear’s debut play at the Bush and another new play at the Globe, so perhaps not. ( (Of course, this is far from the first time that critics and arts writers have appeared on the professional stage: this paper’s own Matt Hemley recently made a cameo appearance in the West End’s Spamalot, as he reported at the time).

But I’ve also just had an interesting pitch from Simon James Collier, director, co-writer and co-producer of the new musical The Last Ever Musical that opened at Kennington’s White Bear last night, who tells me, “We have included a critic character in the show – Art Trenton – who draws inspiration from you, hope you don’t mind…” That’s one way to get me to see it!

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