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Mark Shenton’s week: What makes critics disagree… or dance?

Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly, and Peter Bowles in The Exorcist at Phoenix Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Day Spooky as a wet sock or food for thought? A scene from The Exorcist. Photo: Robert Day
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One of the great mysteries of a life in theatre is how critics sometimes diverge completely in their opinions on the same shows. It is also one of the refreshing things about the critical landscape. We do not speak with one voice. There’s no right and wrong; it’s just a matter of opinion.

It is the critic’s job, though, to ensure their opinions are compellingly stated, so you can make up your own mind.

There have been striking instances of serious critical divergences in New York and London in the past two weeks.

In New York, John Patrick Shanley’s new play The Portuguese Kid, which premiered at Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club on October 24,  was characterised as “a high-wattage, low-return” production by Jesse Green in the New York Times, who also complained: “I’m not sure you can credit as jokes the mechanical dings that the play spews every 15 seconds. They are, at best, the husks of jokes, all specific personality scraped out. With their obvious setups and predictable pay-offs, any of them could be delivered by any character — in any comedy ever.”

In the Wall Street Journal, by contrast, Terry Teachout couldn’t stop laughing. He dubbed it “the funniest new comedy I’ve reviewed since… well, maybe ever”, and states: “I don’t know when I last saw another stage comedy that was funny right from the top—it usually takes at least a couple of minutes to get the cards dealt—or one whose last scene was so unmanipulatively touching.”

Comedy is very personal – you either laugh or you don’t, and you respond accordingly. The same is true of thrillers designed to scare: you either jump out of your skin, or you are left stone-cold.

Critics for the new London stage version of The Exorcist were divided on this one, too, with Lyn Gardner in The Guardian saying in a one-star review that it was “less head-turningly scary than mind-numbingly dull and about as spooky as a wet sock”. Natasha Tripney in The Stage agreed in her two-star review, whereas Dominic Cavendish in a four-star review for the Daily Telegraph said the show “delivers the schlock-horror goods; but it also proffers a decent slice of food for thought”.

An indomitable Patti LuPone soldiers on….

When the closing date for Broadway’s War Paint was brought forward from December 30 to yesterday (November 5), its co-star Patti LuPone stated: “It is with great sadness that I must leave War Paint to undergo hip-replacement surgery. For several months I have been performing in a great deal of pain.”

And seeing the show for a third time the week before last, I could see that she was not lying.  And I could absolutely identify, having had both my hips replaced in the last few years. I recognised the look of sheer concentration as she steeled herself to take every step, knowing the pain that would sheer through her. Equally, I recognised the way she steadied herself by keeping a hand on any available surface as she stood.

The good news is the relief she’s got coming to her once she’s had the surgery. The bad news is that War Paint got curtailed. I adored this musical portrait of the intense rivalry of Manhattan cosmetics giants Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (played by Christine Ebersole), and seeing it a couple of times more after reviewing it only intensified by admiration.

I hope that someone brings it to London. Though LuPone and Ebsersole will be a tough act to follow.

When an embargoed press release causes a critic to dance

We live in a world where press information is carefully controlled by the guardians at the gate, except of course when it leaks. One way of trying to prevent this from happening is to let journalists in on the secret, but conscript their silence by placing it under embargo – so they know it but can’t say it yet.

It led Matt Trueman to post an intriguing tweet last week “*does embargoed press release with extremely exciting news dance*”. I enjoyed the response of Orange Tree publicist Ben Clare who linked to a release of the full cast and dates for Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and asked: “Is this what you’ve been sitting on Matt?”

In fact it was the announcement of the Barbican’s 2018 theatre and dance programme. And yes, I’m excited, too, by the news that Taylor Mac is bringing part of his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music to London. I saw the full 24-hour version in New York last year, when he performed it continuously from 12noon on Saturday to 12noon on Sunday, at St Ann’s Warehouse. It was one of the most memorable events of my theatregoing life.

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