Critical updates: the fate of Sunday critics, and coming under friendly and unfriendly fire

Mr Burns at the Almeida. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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No sooner was I writing here yesterday about film director Ken Loach's call for a world without critics than he may have got his wish, at least at the Sunday Telegraph where film critic and columnist Jenny McCartney was let go as part of a purge of senior journalists there yesterday that also included the blogs editor, the deputy editor, and the business editor amongst others.

There's no word yet on what the Sunday Telegraph will do, but in the new 'integrated' model where the paper's editor in chief is now the "chief content editor" and all efforts are being driven towards the web, it seems that the days of separate Sunday and daily paper critics are surely numbered anyway.

As a former Sunday newspaper critic myself, I of course welcomed the fact that the daily and Sunday editions of most national papers have maintained separate editorial teams and identities, but if and when all content is driven to the web, it's pointless for this kind of doubling up to continue. Already last year the Independent on Sunday laid off all its critics; I wonder where's next.


Meanwhile, critics continue to come under daily fire from friends and foes alike. It's all part of the job: if we give criticism, we have to be able to take it, too. And I actively encourage the dialogue; we are, as I've often said before, only the start of a conversation around a piece, not the end of it. Just last week I reported here on my own and other reactions to Mr Burns at the Almeida.

A healthy debate has certainly been ignited here. And the differing reactions are indeed striking. I enjoyed Thomas Hescott's tweet mimicking mine:


And the acting editor of The Stage Alistair Smith tweeted:


Blogger Andrew Haydon offered this:


Oh, come on. Mr Burns @AlmeidaTheatre is awesome. Anyone who says otherwise is nuts.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend who had seen it the night before:

I loved it.  Audacious, uncompromising and powerful. I can completely see why you and many others hated it.  But just imagine we had been sitting around that post-apocalyptic campfire and were recounting the original Broadway production of Follies to one another and 100 years later it had become a religion, wait a minute that's happened!

He's right – theatre is a bit of a religion (or at least Follies is!), so no wonder it provokes such strong (and contradictory) reactions. But that's one of the pleasures of it: that there's no 'right' way of looking at it, but that we approach things we see individually and from our own perspectives.

Last Sunday, Clare Brennan reviewed Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's new production The Valley of Astonishment (that begins its London run at the Young Vic tomorrow) in The Observer, and declared that she loved it, "finding it intriguing, moving and unexpectedly funny." But, she went on,

A woman sitting near me, though, did not applaud at the end. Moved? Disaffected? We talked. She didn't see the point. Yet we agreed we had seen the same things in it.... "But," said the woman, "it's not theatre! You could do the same thing in a more theatrical way." That doesn't take away from my impression – of a performance with the qualities of a Beethoven late quartet: distilled essence of thought and feeling. And the conundrum? I firmly believe we are both right.

I'm going to find out for myself on Monday when it opens officially at the Young Vic. And it's this review that has made me want to see it.


Another friend wrote to me yesterday after my review for Hobson's Choice at the Open Air Theatre appeared on The Stage's website.

Just seen your review of Hobson's Choice. I was there last night and walked out at the interval... Did we watch the same show? Awful direction and terrible performances.....Why are critics reviews consistently opposite to that of the public's? Betty Blue Eyes, Love Never Dies, The Light Princess, Stephen Ward to name just a few.


My friend isn't, though, exactly Joe Public himself: he's an actor and composer. Sometimes actors are the sternest of critics, I find, and I'm only sorry, as I always am, that he could not share my pleasure, just as I disliked Mr Burns with a heavy heart.

Especially, in the case of the latter, because I know and like several members of the cast. One tweeted publicly after I did about wishing to gouge my eyes out, "Don't gouge out your eyes, they are very nice eyes." After I replied thanking her, she replied in turn, "It's only a play...and we are all entitled to our opinions. Interesting that it's had such varying reactions, thought it would."