New Year is a period of renewal and change. For two long-established London critics, that means they have lost their jobs in a shake-up at their publications. In yesterday’s Observer, Jann Parry signed off as that paper’s dance critic, “after nearly a quarter of a century and more than a thousand columns”. She’s victim of next week’s revamp of the paper – following its sister paper The Guardian’s re-formatting into the so-called “Berliner” tabloid – that mean changes need to be made to ‘freshen it up’ (my words, not hers) not just design-wise but editorially as well, and she’s one of them.
And in the weekly edition of Variety, out today, their London theatre critic Matt Wolf signs off, too, “after more than 13 years flying solo in the London hot seat”. He’s flown close to the wind, at times – most notably last summer when he went against the prevailing winds on Billy Elliot, and then was publicly rebuked by his editor-in-chief Peter Bart, who wrote in reply, “Variety’s critic greeted the show with a fusillade of words like ‘maudlin’ and ‘lazy,’ with Elton John’s music described as its ‘weakest link.’ This caught me off guard, since, in my opinion, Billy Elliot will clearly rank as one of the best musicals of its generation. Not since the opening of The Producers has a show left its audience on such a high.”
He went on, “The job of critics is to deliver their opinions, to be sure, but it is especially troubling for Variety critics to appear disdainful of ‘audience’ shows… Over the span of its 100-year history, Variety critics have often pointed up the commercial potential of major blockbusters while acknowledging their artistic shortcomings, but we’ve made some bad calls, too. In the face of all this, the role of the editor is to encourage, cajole and now and then bark.”
That column was a public form of barking; but now Matt has found that the bite is worse than the bark, as he has now been taken off duty. He will, however, be an extremely tough act to follow; a native New Yorker who long ago based himself in London, he is uniquely placed to observe the West End and its environs through well-informed American eyes. And the job carries a huge burden as well as responsibility: it tends to act as the eyes and ears of the American theatre industry.
Even in this internet age, when all the London reviews are actually accessible to Americans very easily, the Variety review is often the final arbiter of how West End shows are received in the US. I’ve lost count of the number of people in New York who will say, “But it’s had great reviews in London…” when Matt has sung a show’s praises, or “…but its had terrible reviews…” when he hasn’t!
The multi-tasking Matt will, however, continue to be London critic for the International Herald Tribune, so his voice will not be lost; and he continues to write profiles for numerous nationals (yesterday he was in the Sunday Times interviewing Jodhi May).
Jann Parry is to be replaced by Luke Jennings, and Matt Wolf by David Benedict.