Mark Shenton: TV critics have it easy – at least theatre reviewers leave the house
Last weekend, Camilla Long swapped her patch from reviewing films to television for the Sunday Times. “I’ve officially left my wife for the mistress,” she said. Practically, it’s also a much easier beat as it doesn’t mean having to go to early morning screenings in the West End – TV shows can be watched from the comfort of your own sofa.
But Long actually presented the move as another cultural step forwards: “Nothing matches television’s insanity, its intensity, its wit, its self-deprecation, its tireless obsession with bettering itself. The sheer volume of overmatter, lost ideas, culled scripts, abandoned pilots, shelved miniseries, ruthlessly tried-and-tested formulas, marks it out as the most creative and vital medium of our age. No other art form can afford this wastage. No other art form spends this much time tailoring itself to the tastes and desires of so many people. It’s pure anthropology; it’s transformed our sex lives, revolutionised our politics.”
In fact, we live in a world of excess in every area of our cultural lives (with the possible exception of new operas). There’s “overmatter”, as she calls it, everywhere; and though Long’s first 1,700-word column only actually reviewed four programmes in all – one each on BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – I’m assuming she watched a lot more to decide what to include.
There are far too many channels and TV programmes for one critic ever to cover, so she has to make choices. But you also never truly miss a TV show: thanks to Netflix, I’m finally catching up with Breaking Bad, 10 years after the first series started airing.
Theatre, by contrast, is more elusive and fleeting. Miss it, and it’s gone. Unless, like Amadeus this week at the National or Paapa Essiedu on tour in Hamlet for the RSC, it returns.
So, we need to catch it when we can. And trying to cover it all is like trying to catch a rainbow: ever out of reach. I saw eight shows last week; six of them I reviewed formally, while a seventh was a student production of a rarely seen musical and the eighth was purely for pleasure – a repeat visit to Matilda.
Critic (and regular columnist for The Stage) Matt Trueman has often remarked: “What a critic chooses to review is a critical act in itself”. Meanwhile, I’ve often bemoaned the fact that there are only seven nights a week – and although I’ve been known to see 12 shows in a single week (seven evenings plus five matinees), I’m also keenly aware that this is far too much. Critics need time to refresh themselves and keep our own passions running high.
Long also wrote of her new patch: “It feels like diving into a digital Limpopo: endless possibilities, with some interestingly mucky bits.”
And that’s also absolutely true of the theatre. We may mostly swim around in the same river – for London’s national critics, that is in and around the Thames, but there are other rivers to explore. This weekend, for instance, I’ll be near the River Aire, as I head to Leeds for a couple of shows.
Getting out of London is an important critical duty. So is stretching our own critical palates – there’s no point just seeing stuff in our own comfort zones all the time.
By contrast, Long and her fellow TV critics won’t even have to stir from their sofas. The world she’ll be reviewing arrives on her phone, laptop and in the corner of her living room. Theatre critics at least have to leave the house.