Mark Shenton: Who influences what theatre critics decide to see?

Sharon Small in Carmen Disruption. Photo: Marc Brenner
Sharon Small in Carmen Disruption. Photo: Marc Brenner
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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Critics are, first and foremost, a consumer guide to the theatre – I've sometimes thought we see the shows so you don't have to. And trust me, I sometimes trust my colleagues to keep me away from stuff, too. I was away recently for a nine-day stretch in New York, so I missed a bunch of London openings. Playing catch-up is virtually impossible with all the new shows that have jumped in to open since, so I'm being extremely selective about what I see.

I'm going to give The Twits at the Royal Court a wide berth, I'm afraid, after Dominic Cavendish reported in his Telegraph review:

“What’s happening?” a plaintive little voice was heard to utter at the first Saturday matinee, as damning a verdict as any on director John Tiffany and his team’s failure (thus far) to achieve the requisite pace, clarity and excitement. My kids – 10 and 13 – gamely stuck it out, with more enthusiasm for the interval ice cream than anything.

Yes, I have to admit that the interval ice cream is often what keeps me going, too – when the going gets tough, I rely on the sugar high to restore me.

To be fair, The Twits wasn't universally panned. In the Sunday Times [links to paid content], Christopher Hart managed to summon some enthusiasm, while simultaneously damning both the Royal Court and the National Theatre for past work:

At last, after a run of dismal failures, the Royal Court has managed something that’s really quite fun, largely thanks to Roald Dahl, who knew a thing or two about entertaining, not preaching. His malevolent little book from 1980 has been “mischievously adapted” into a stage play by Enda Walsh. The last thing I saw by Walsh was a play at the National so mind-bogglingly awful, it made a friend of mine swear she was never, ever going to go to a theatre again.

But sometimes a good review gives you enough information and context to know you should stay away nonetheless – and funnily enough, Hart also mentions the ice cream ("a briskly enjoyable couple of hours, including ice cream") and conscripts a young person (Attie, 11) to join him at the show. Attie even offers a capsule rating: "Definitely four stars."

On the other hand, an overwhelmingly negative review will sometimes be enough to make me want to rush to see something. I missed the Young Vic's new production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!, and even if I wasn't going to miss the chance of seeing the wondrously versatile Janie Dee in it as part of a busy summer (she's also starring in the summer musical Mrs Henderson Presents at Bath's Theatre Royal), Michael Coveney's one-star pan for Whatsonstage, in which he dubbed its design "a disaster of poetic pretentiousness" was enough to convince me I have to attend. I'm going next week.

But the other thing about London critics, is that there are enough of us to counteract (and contradict) each other. In a four-star review for FT.com, Sarah Hemming wrote of the Ah, Wilderness! set:

The sandy landscape (designed by Dick Bird) seems perverse at first and can be distracting, as family members scale the dunes in search of the dining table, but as the story takes hold, this curious dreamlike setting draws out the play’s melancholic undertones and the wistful sense of a family idealised through imagination.

I know that as a critic it is my job to make up my own mind. But there are only so many hours in the day, so even the most dedicated can't see everything. I make no apology for using other critics to guide and inform me, so when I play catch up I (hopefully) skip the mediocre.

And that's why I've also booked to see Carmen Disruption at the Almeida. Susannah Clapp's five star rave in the Observer completely persuaded me that I had to see it.

Carmen Disruption will go on reverberating, not because it beguiles but because it is so 3D dramatic. It is a depth charge to the theatre.

Matt Trueman also doled out five stars for Carmen Disruption on Whatsonstage:

No playwright gets under the skin like Simon Stephens. Sometimes, his writing needles an audience; sometimes, it bruises. Carmen Disruption is more like a hundred lashes: lacerating and persistent, but both punishing and pleasurable. It is a self-flagellating play that looks at the modern world as much with lust as with loathing.

That makes it all sounds a bit BDSM. Maybe people will buy tickets for the wrong reasons.

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