Standing up to be counted and sounding off

A classic skit recreated in Monty Python Live (Mostly). Photo: Ludwig Shammasian
A classic skit recreated in Monty Python Live (Mostly). Photo: Ludwig Shammasian
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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Everyone, as the oft-repeated phrase goes, is a critic nowadays, so criticising the critics is fair game. Lord knows we've bashed enough things in our time to withstand the occasional bashing ourselves.

But there seems to be a lot of incomprehension and bafflement amongst some creative people about what critics are there to do. Just the other day The Stage's comedy critic Julian Hall wrote a blog about the critical reactions to the Monty Python reunion concerts, in which he quoted Jason Manford's tweet: "How on earth can a show that reportedly got a standing ovation receive negative reviews from journalists!?" 

He also quoted Jim Davidson's reply: "It is because the little insignificant shits have to justify their existence. They have already written it before the show!"

I'd like to see the evidence of that, but it was no doubt impossible for anyone to go without some kind of expectation: as Julian also wrote:

There was something out of synch about the whole affair. There are so many sliding scales here: how much of a fan were you to start with, what were your expectations, what can you compare it with?

A good critic would, within the boundaries of his or her word count, try to contexualise their reaction; and it is, as Julian notes, a complicated business. "That's why criticism has to go deeper than a gut reaction to give a standing ovation, an impulse driven by feelings other than analysis."

Critics are regularly put in the uncomfortable position of facing that standing ovation: do we join in or not? If we don't, are we giving away how we felt? Or even if we share the enthusiasm, are we allowed to stand with the crowd or must we remain apart from them? No, I'll join in if I genuinely feel its appropriate - but then will be able to use my review to explain why. But these days they've become, as on Broadway, a simple default reaction to virtually anything, so more often that not I won't join in.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, The Stage's Matthew Hemley reported that Curve chief executive Fiona Allan has urged national critics to be more supportive of new British musicals if they genre is to survive. She is quoted saying:

I think it’s important for the media to give new musicals a chance. Water Babies was a brand new British musical and they [the creative team] had very big plans for it. What we saw is a lot of tickets sold and audiences liked it, and it had a standing ovation every night. But it was absolutely murdered by the national press. The national press said it was terrible and pretty much killed it off I think – certainly the chance of having an immediate life.

Once again, it is the standing ovation that is being offered up as a reason for the critics to be seen to be an odds with the public's reaction. And I certainly agree that critics have an important role in nurturing and supporting new musicals, and as part of that we need to be constructive rather than destructive. But blind support isn't the answer, either, or it fosters a false sense of confidence. Nobody would have thanked us, not least the creative team, for sending this musical merrily on its way to a fast West End failure. (I blogged about some of the reactions at the time here).

But at least we saw the show. Amidst the press coverage of preview reactions to Richard III, which opened officially last night, there was much talk of audiences reacting inappropriately. And in one news story, Maureen Lipman is wheeled out to comment,

Martin Freeman’s face is on every bus in London. The producers are aiming for people who spend most of their day with wire in their ears. It is not so much Richard III as Richard the rock concert.

I have a lot of admiration for Lipman as an actress, not least in Daytona in which she opened just the other night; but I very much doubt she's actually seen Richard III as a result, since she's occupied elsewhere every night. The least a critic - or anyone making this kind of comment - should do is see the show.

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