The papers, including this one online, were full of reports yesterday of how well the West End did last year – with a record 12.36m attendances, clocking up a box office take of an astonishing cumulative £400,802,809 (which certainly gives me pause when the West End still claims it cannot pay for the upkeep of its own theatres)! But the good news is that the upward trend could be here to stay, since the West End is also carrying an unprecedented advance sale going into 2007 of some £57m (more than double the figure at the same time the previous year).
These buoyant commercial figures, said Charlie Spencer as he welcomed us to yesterday’s annual Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards (of which he is chairman of the drama section), remind us that though our job is to assess and describe artistic and entertainment values, we’re also dealing with a very lucrative business, too.
So there was plenty to celebrate as we convened at the Prince of Wales Theatre for this year’s awards — the ones that, as comedian Arthur Smith declared in his witty introduction, are the “worst dressed and least publicized of all the award ceremonies – and rightly so”. (He urged us to leave our mobile phones on – since it’s a very dull event and we could catch up on some calls, and maybe try out some new ring tones). But one of the pleasures of the awards are their very informality, and the fact that (as one press agent put it to me) two sets of people – on apparently oppositional sides – can come together on the same side to celebrate together.
It’s a chance, of course, for the profession to see who we are – and watch some of our number making tits of themselves, too! Arthur Smith, though, affectionately does most of that job for us – noting, for the purposes of a joke he wanted to shoehorn in about two critic dwarfs having sex in adjoining rooms, that we tend to be on the shorter side, he also spoke of how culturally diverse we are: “They didn’t all go to the same public schools and they went to different Oxbridge colleges.” There was quite a lot of good-natured joshing on Toby Young’s behalf – now retired from the critical throng, as previously blogged about here – but back for one day yesterday to present an award to the most promising playwright, who of course was conspicuously not himself. (Arthur also spoke of the good news that “Toby Young shows no signs of writing a new play”, and then added, “I don’t know that, Toby, but I’m just praying!”).
But if our eccentricities are sometimes exposed publicly here (such as Benedict Nightingale’s of publicly admitting to securing Connie Fisher’s autograph earlier), so are our enthusiasms. It was good to hear The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner speak of the fact that, after 20 years as a critic, she still feels incredibly lucky and privileged to be doing the job – even after nights, and the previous night was one of them, when she said you can’t believe the level of pain that’s being inflicted in the name of entertainment and art (for the record, she was referring to the opening of Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiver at Hackney Empire). But then there are nights that make it all worthwhile, and that you will remember for the rest of your life – such as the National Theatre of Scotland’s Blackwatch that she saw in Edinburgh last August, and was directed with “delirious flair and total precision” by John Tiffany, to whom she presented the award for Best Director.
But the great store that are put by our words (and actions) were also exposed by recipients of the awards, too. The Most Promising Playwright winner – Nina Raine, for Rabbit – detailed how she watched us closely as we watched her play, noting, for instance, that David Benedict saw it on a night when a “lunatic” was laughing at every line, that Michael Coveney came in shorts and sat at the side, and that Lyn Gardner stopped taking notes after the first two scenes. But receiving the award, she felt, meant that the “neurotic emotional investment” she had put in us had been repaid. And Tamsin Greig, receiving the award for Best Shakespearean Performance for Much Ado About Nothing, made the day’s wittiest speech – one in which she thanked us for being “lovely clever stupid people” – and referred to the fact that she only read one review, since it was the one her mother would have read had she been alive as she put great store by Charlie Spencer’s words, and found that he had described her as “not exactly beautiful, a little like Edwina Currie.”
The most heartfelt and moving part of the ceremony, however, was the re-naming of the Best Musical Award in honour of the late, great editor of The Stage, Peter Hepple, who died last October at the age of 79. His widow Josie and two daughters Claire and Julie went onstage, with Josie reading a lovely tribute to Peter. He was, of course, a man who devoted his life to the entertainment business, and was an encyclopaedic reference source of it. And that, ultimately, is one of the things that gives a critic authority: having both respect and knowledge for what we’re criticising.
So it was chastening later in the day to finally open my copy of yesterday’s Guardian and find it reported that a theatrical think-tank called “Devoted and Disgruntled”, some 300 theatre practitioners who gathered at BAC had debated, amongst some 125 debates in all, “ways of putting the nation’s critics out of their jobs,” according to Maddy Costa’s feature. She wrote, “As one person says, critics have all been in these strange, solitary jobs for far too long, giving the impression that theatre doesn’t change, that each night’s performance will be just like the one they saw. Worse still, reviewers use the same language to evaluate productions as different as The Sound of Music, the latest David Hare and an avant-garde fringe show. Life could be so much better if theatres selected new critics each year from the ranks of their own audiences, and stopped relying on newspaper coverage.” Apparently, however, “The nation’s reviewers can rest assured, however, that plans for change currently stop at setting up a theatre review website, with audiences as contributors.” Anyone, however, who has trafficked the bulletin boards of the various websites, will know that the public – who have paid for their tickets – can be even more merciless than professional critics. And they’re a lot less accountable. At least, as Arthur Smith pointed out at the Critics’ Circle Awards, we’re prepared to put our names in the papers against our opinions.
And critics can play a powerful role in shaping and encouraging an art form. In a different news feature in The Guardian on Monday about the plight of French art house cinema, it was pointed out that “France has fallen dramatically out of love with the auteur and the whole idea of art house film which it invented.” Attendances for art house films are in freefall – “Le Monde has warned of a ‘catastrophe’, independent producers and distributors are haemorrhaging funds and even highbrow cinema magazines are struggling.” And according to veteran French film critic Michel Ciment, editor of Positif (one of France’s oldest cinema magazines), “Part of the problem is a lack of credibility of film critics in France. In the 50s and 60s they would have frontpage pieces and a huge influence. If they said an obscure film was a masterpiece, 200,000 people would go to see it at one cinema and it would stay on for a year. But critics in France have now lost their power to influence, the public feel they too cosily promote friends, are snobbish and only present esoteric films. The audience feels insulted.”
So as critical power has been eroded there, so has an art form. We all have a responsibility to maintain the dialogue, and critics are a crucial part of it. The think-tank idea that theatres choose critics from the ranks of their own audiences may be democratising that theatrical dialogue – but the public ultimately decides anyway, what to see. (Otherwise We Will Rock You would have shut long ago). And losing expert opinion would mean that theatre-makers would no longer have their work policed and judged by people who, whatever our individual faults and proclivities, have a wide frame of reference for doing so.