One of the songs in Avenue Q (currently at the Noel Coward) is all about schadenfreude. “What’s that, some kind of Nazi word?” asks Nicky. And Gary Coleman explains, “Yup! It’s German for “Happiness at the misfortune of others!” Nicky repeats it, and exclaims, “That is German!”
Talking of Nazis and Germans brings us neatly to Prince Harry and Prince Philip respectively, who are two of the characters in Toby Young and Lloyd Evans’ new play A Right Royal Farce that opened at the King’s Head this week. Young and Evans, moonlighting from their usual night job(share) as theatre critics for The Spectator, have turned playwrights for the second year running, after scoring a runaway hit with Who’s the Daddy? that set the merry-go-round of sex scandals that affected their own magazine to a dizzyingly-imagined farce.
But comic lightning, as The Guardian’s Michael Billington trenchantly observed, rarely strikes twice; and there can be few more appropriate instances of schadenfreude amongst London’s theatrical set this week than the skewering that its authors have now taken from their own colleagues. In the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts called it “one of the most embarrassingly unfunny things since Michael Barrymore’s attempted West End comeback” and added, “To call it a stinker does not do it justice. It’s smellier than that sewage works next to the M4 near Heathrow.” While he generously admitted to his fondness for young Toby, he delivered the killer punch to his friend: “Sorry, Toby, but you should pull the plug before any more of your friends have to sit through this shocker.”
It’s indeed one of those rare cases where reading the reviews turns out to be far more entertaining than sitting through the show. In the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish began his review by quoting Kenneth Tynan’s suggestion that “a critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car”, and then comments, “Judging by the appalling car crash of an entertainment currently occupying the stage of the King’s Head theatre in Islington, he was being too generous to his own kind by half - some critics not only can’t drive, they haven’t a clue where they’re going.” He goes on, “A Right Royal Farce manages to be both tasteless and timid while pulling off the near-impossible feat of being almost entirely devoid of laughs.” He concludes, “For reasons too tedious to go into, both William Hoyland, a fantastically louche Philip, and Tim Wallers, a forgettably hearty James Hewitt, have to suffer the humiliation of wearing giant strap-on erections beneath their nightshirts. At least those two phoney pricks do their job. Evans and Young, who fancy themselves god’s gift to comedy, can’t keep it up for a minute, let alone a few hours.”
In the Financial Times, Alastair Macaulay quotes another maxim: “To the theory about critics that goes ‘they only write reviews because they can’t do it themselves’, they give, in this play, a distinct boost.” And in the Evening Standard, Nicholas de Jongh wrote that it “has all the shock-value of a pair of pubertal schoolboys caught fiddling with each other in the bike shed”, a metaphor that may say more about Nick than it does about the play, before reaching for another more appropriate one, that it “has all the bite and provocation of a toothless old corgi.”
In the Independent, Robert Hanks referred to the acting as “by and large village-hall Christmas panto standard, though its hard to see what they could achieve with this material”. He tries to reach for something to take away from it all, but admits defeat: “Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here: that iconoclasm is much harder work than you might imagine. But I’m struggling to extract something from this waste of an evening.”
But if critics haven’t managed to extract anything useful from it, I’m sure that Toby, at least, will get plenty of mileage out of it: it will be simply be yet more fodder for the litany of his life’s failures that he keeps turning into successful journalism. And the critics have duly risen to the occasion of providing more material for that. Indeed, he already has: today’s Daily Mail has a full-page feature by Toby himself on how he felt reading the reviews. “I felt like Max Bialystock in the opening scene of The Producers when he opens the New York Times, reads a bad review of his latest play and screams: Who do I have to f* to get a break in this town?” Toby goes on to quote Kingley Amis’s maxim “that a bad review can ruin your breakfast but you shouldn’t let it spoil your lunch,” and says, “However, even his stoicism might have been tested by so many bad notices.” He tries to take comfort in the fact that critics aren’t always right — and remembers that Look Back in Anger was universally panned until Tynan came to the rescue. “Can Lloyd and I expect the contemporary equivalent of Kenneth Tynan to come to the aid of our play? I’m afraid that we don’t hold out much hope.”
Instead, he takes comfort from the response of the audience, and asks how so many critics could describe the play as ‘unfunny’ when nearly everyone else in the theatre, he says, “were wetting their pants?” Actually, I was there, and though there were occasional outbreaks of sniggering, it’s true, the only dampness in the theatre was a leak from the the King’s Head famously porous roof, neatly positioned near de Jongh’s seat and offering the delightful prospect of seeing one drip on another.
But Young can at least lay claim to one piece of notoriety now: it has also instantly become this year’s summer theatrical turkey, to rival last year’s Behind the Iron Mask.