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Mark Shenton’s week: Finding differences with Donald Trump and common ground with Ann Treneman

Mark Shenton's desk. Photo: Mark Shenton Mark Shenton's desk. Photo: Mark Shenton
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The other day, the White House tried to demonstrate that Donald Trump was actually working rather than playing golf.

It did so by releasing a photograph of him ‘at work’ in the Oval Office, in the middle of the government shutdown his party had brought about. In the obviously staged photograph, his hand grips an old-fashioned telephone (not a wireless receiver either, but one with a plastic coil); his mouth, however, is mercifully shut, so it’s not certain he’s actually speaking to anyone.

Guardian columnist Steven Poole has noted that one 2013 study reported that working at a clean and prim desk may promote healthy eating, generosity and conventionality; and Poole says: “Plainly, though, that is not working for Trump.” On the other hand, the researchers suggest, “a messy desk may confer its own benefits, promoting creative thinking and stimulating new ideas”. In which case, we may all be thankful that the Resolute Desk is so spick and span: the last thing the world needs is any more creative thinking from the president.”

In a spirit of critical openness – one that Trump has obviously not extended to his own tax returns – not only can I report that I completed my tax returns at the weekend, but I am also happy to show you my  work desk at home in all its cluttered glory.

At least in this regard I’m clearly accurately matching Poole’s description of what my desk should look like: “The desks of writers, in particular, are reliably strewn with papers, books, half-empty coffee cups, receipts, rubber bands and unidentifiable gewgaws – and who is more responsibly productive than your typical writer?”

Yep, I can check all of those things. Plus piles of CDs – yes, I still listen to CDs – theatre programmes, scripts, and copies of The Stage…..

Making the same connections (or lack of them)

It’s a rule of critical protocol that we reviewers do not collude – there may be the occasional shared shrug or eye-roll of despair, or a whoop of unsurpassed joy that lets us know how our colleagues are feeling. So I’m always amused when two critics make exactly the same point or comparison. And, last week, it happened to me, when both Ann Treneman of The Times and I both began our reviews for Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Vaudeville by referencing the Maggie Hambling sculptured head of Oscar Wilde, just down the Strand from the theatre, and its inscription – “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” – that actually comes from that play.

We’re both clearly up on our London Wildean landmarks, or have just spent too much time around Charing Cross station. But then two nights later we agreed again – at least on a star rating, with both of us awarding Annie Baker’s John at the National a mere two stars.

That has put us both seriously out of step with the rest of the critical pack, including Ann’s regular colleague on The Times Sam Marlowe (who gave it five stars, writing for The Stage, as did Sarah Crompton for Whatsonstage).

John review at National Theatre, London – ‘exquisite, disturbing and startlingly funny’

I always say there’s no such thing as right and wrong in theatre reviewing; it’s always a matter of opinion.  As I acknowledged in my review: “Theatrical marmite doesn’t come more pungently or demandingly flavoured than this: the UK premiere of Annie Baker’s latest is the strangest new play in many a long day (and even longer night).”

But when I’m at such cross-purposes with most of my colleagues, I’m tempted to go again to make sure I didn’t miss something.

Your very own London theatre…

The grand old Theatre Royal Haymarket is one of the last remaining independently-owned theatres in London. The rest are mainly owned by one of the big four chains – Ambassador Theatre Group, Really Useful Theatres, Delfont Mackintosh or Nimax – with a couple more each owned by the Nederlander Organization and Stephen Waley-Cohen. But, last week, it finally came up for sale when the family trust that currently controls it decided to let it go.

The theatre’s chairman Arnold Crook – possibly the best named theatre impresario in town – pointed out the difficulties of running it independently: while the bigger players can ‘cushion’ losses from under-performing shows: “We cannot afford not to have a success.”

But what’s been impressive about the Haymarket under Crook’s 37-year tenure has been  a commitment beyond those commercial imperatives: through its in-house education charity Masterclass, it supports and nurtures the involvement of young people in the theatre, with a programme of onstage workshops and other creative opportunities.

I hope that whoever takes over the Haymarket will inherit and continue this.

I’ve already encountered one interesting idea for ownership: a GoFundMe campaign has been launched by Bossy, an all-female collective, who want to buy the theatre to encourage and support female-led work.

Meanwhile, former Times theatre critic Libby Purves replied to a tweet I sent about the sale by saying: “Off to by Lottery ticket. I want it!”

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