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Mark Shenton: Unlike some critics, I dread having to pen a one-star review

Catherine Tate in Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Catherine Tate in Miss Atomic Bomb at the St James Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I hate wielding the knife – I’d much rather gently massage, coax and encourage, or shout my enthusiasm from the rooftops. But in the last couple of months, I’ve twice been forced to go for the dreaded one-star review (which, paradoxically, some theatre folk wear as a badge of pride all of its own).

I’ve been particularly challenged on each of these occasions, since both of them had people associated with them whose work I have particularly admired in the past – I’d happily call myself a fan of either, maybe even a friend.

In the case of Hand to God, I love Janie Dee, both on stage and off. She’s one of my favourite theatre people and we’ve known each other for years, ever since I first interviewed her when she was doing a Pinter play on tour at Richmond Theatre; she brought a rug out on to Richmond Green and we conducted the interview on the ground. In the years since, I’ve interviewed her several more times, including at her house in Holland Park, at Jerwood Space and on stage in front of an audience, when I was doing a series of talks with leading theatre personalities for the Theatrical Guild.

And we recently shared another stage when both she and I were guests of David Bedella’s monthly chat show at the St James Theatre. We also have mutual friends such as songwriter Tim Connor, whose 30th birthday party she came to fresh from a performance in Blithe Spirit in the West End which she was appearing in at the time with Angela Lansbury. Best of all, when my critical colleague Benedict Nightingale retired from duty as theatre critic of The Times after 20 years in the job, one of his last reviews had been one in which he had admitted his slavish devotion to all things Dee – so I asked her to be a surprise guest and come and sing to him at his farewell lunch at the National Theatre. Of course, she readily accepted.

What marks out Dee is that she’s always the same – not, I hasten to add, on stage (where she has a chameleonic ability to inhabit totally different characters, but has a unique ability to locate the pain as well as the pleasure in every person she plays), but off-stage, she’s a bubbly pool of effervescent delight and enthusiasms. But it’s not theatrical and gushy – she also exhibits real human concern for others. She even offered me a reference to her own medical specialist when I was in pain.

So I hope I didn’t inflict pain of my own in not liking a show she’d chosen to do herself. I’d like to think that we have enough history for this not to be case. The same was true when I also hated the Almeida Theatre’s Mr Burns – I tweeted after the show that I disliked watching it so much I wanted to gouge out my own eyes, and Jenna Russell, another actress who I revere who was in it, immediately tweeted back: “Don’t do that – you have beautiful eyes.” That’s sheer class and a measure of the woman. And at my own last birthday, my friend Scott Alan collected a range of fantastic video tributes to me from friends who couldn’t be there, from Philip Quast (on his boat in Australia) to Jenna, who spoke about how in the theatre you always need champions – and that I was one for her.

But though I’m happily a champion, I’m not a slavish cheerleader. And this week I gave my second one-star pan of the year so far, this time to Miss Atomic Bomb. I want nothing more than a constant parade of original new musicals to find a berth in London, and although I really don’t want to kill them at birth, this one has, according to the producer’s note in the programme, had five years of development. But it was still so tonally (and mostly tunelessly) deaf that I had to call it like I heard it, which is to say that it still felt and looked to me like a very early draft. This show, too, had performers in it I very much admire, including such hard-working and immensely talented musical theatre names as Simon Lipkin, Daniel Boys and rising star Dean John-Wilson (next up, he’s the lead in Aladdin), as well as a late substitute to the company, David Birrell. I wanted the show to be good for them. But even their best efforts couldn’t save it.

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