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Matt Trueman: Have critics lost their appetite for hatchet jobs?

Photo: Mladen Mitrinovic/Shutterstock
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It’s been ages since I wrote a real stinker: an all-out, one-star assault. When I was younger – still indignant, still stupid – they came out once in a while, for incompetent fringe fare and tired old tat. Now, not so much. It’s a year since my last – and even that pulled some punches. Have I, um, gone soft?

Have we all? With a few notable exceptions, you rarely see a critic rolling their eyes these days, let alone baring their teeth – not in theatre. Why not? Better shows? Shrinking coverage? A loss of nerve and/or cheek?

One of the mantras of this column is that what a critic covers is a critical act in itself. We can’t see everything, so we pick and choose. The criteria differ: sometimes newsworthiness, sometimes diversity (not enough), but mostly – for me – it’s about what might be brilliant.

Apply that across the art form, though, and every critic ends up at work they believe in. It doesn’t guarantee raves, but it does mean sympathetic hearings. You don’t often catch me at the Royal Shakespeare Company, nor Michael Billington at the Yard. The result? Everyone’s happy. Well, happy-ish. That’s a good thing, right? Artists get the critics they want and critics stick to stuff they appreciate. Audiences, meanwhile, align themselves with a critic they trust – and bingo. Everyone wins.

Well, ish. The sad truth is that a proper old-fashioned panning is good for a critic – and, by extension, good for criticism. Mark Kermode swears by them. “For all the movies I love and praise,” he’s written, “it’s the ones I hate that people remember.” This from the man who hailed Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen by smashing his head on a range of hard surfaces.

People love this shit-slinging shit. It’s how reputations are forged

People love this shit-slinging shit. It’s how reputations are forged. Kermode’s head-banging duly went viral, as did Jay Rayner’s recent pooh-poohing of a posh French restaurant: 75,000 shares in two days. A week earlier, he had 280. To the vicious, the spoils. Hard hits get hits. It’s the critical equivalent of slowing down at a crash site.

Because a great critic going full-pelt, venting his or her vitriol on to the page, is a thing of real beauty. Dark, splenetic, grisly beauty, but beauty nonetheless. There’s a fine art to a good drubbing. To convey the very worst, a critic has to bring their very best: authority, wit and apoplexy. There’s even an award for it: Hatchet Job of the Year. Forget Pulitzers. We Brits want Howitzers. At heart, we’re a nation of piss-takers.

More seriously, it’s good for theatre. Criticism serves art when it takes it seriously – so seriously it really matters. Criticism can’t just cheer from the sidelines. It has to take out the trash. It has to be against something to really be for something. Tynan’s love letter to Look Back in Anger would have been nothing without withering scorn elsewhere. John Osborne needed Aunt Edna.

With so much theatre on offer, we’re all sticking to our safe spots. Maybe we should shake that up…