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Shenton's View

The role of critics (and the dangers of Twitter feedback)….

The critic, as I’ve often said here before, isn’t the final word (or even the first) on the state of the art we’re criticising: we’re just part of the dialogue, in which its various makers and its consumers converse. I do hope, though, that by virtue of our passion and our knowledge, we (or at least some of us!) are an informed part of it. But the gauntlet is being thrown down, of course, by the expanded opportunities that the internet provides for everyone to take part in that conversation; and I always welcome it.

I still hope there will be room for professional critics, though, and not just because I am one. Just yesterday, I was noting here how I’d been speaking to a prominent West End theatre producer and theatre owner, who was saying that critics may vanish entirely within the next ten years, to which I had responded: “You’ll miss some of us when we’re gone”.

A reader of my blog duly posted a reply, “Been going to the Theatre, here in the UK for over 40 years, and I’ve never allowed the critics to influence my decision to see or not to see a particular production, so I wouldn’t miss any of you, or your contributions to newspaper’s ‘show page’.”

Yet he’d taken the time to read this blog yesterday, and even more significantly, taken the trouble to reply to it; but it would go, too, if I couldn’t earn a living from doing this anymore! Not that my own long-term financial future has to concern him, but if formal criticism is marginalized or even abolished, what would the starting point be for that conversation to take place around?

Perhaps commentators would take our place. Everyone, after all, has an opinion. But there’s a clear difference between criticism and simply stating an opinion: critics (try to) explain why they hold the opinions they do, whereas some commentators simply state their opinion.

In today’s Independent, Cristina Patterson, who happens to be a brilliant interview profile writer for that paper (often on arts subjects), has written a column in praise of the Young Vic’s current production of Annie Get Your Gun (which coincidentally just yesterday announced a one-week extension of its run, through January 9), in which she declares, “If you want a night of pure, unmitigated, unadulterated joy, go and see Annie Get Your Gun. From that first glimpse of four pianos in front of the stage, and four check-shirted piano players, it’s heaven. Jane Horrocks is a scrawny, grubby, bird-like version of Annie Oakley, the white-trash sharpshooter who became America’s first female superstar. Julian Ovenden is a smoulderingly seductive, but strangely loveable, version of Frank Butler, the Irish sharpshooter she falls in love with. Transposed, in this Young Vic production, from the Wild West frontiers of the 1880s to a post-Depression America of desperate-for-glamour showbiz and diners, it’s a riotous, witty, exuberant celebration of the highs and lows of the American dream.”

There’s plenty of adjectives strung cheek-to-cheek there - but no reasons are offered as to why she thinks it. It just is. You better take her word for it. Compare and contrast the words of Paul Taylor, the Independent’s own chief theatre critic, when he officially reviewed the show a few weeks ago: there begins by stating, “The evening generates a certain degree of warmth at moments, so I didn’t have what you would call a bad time - though, given the following list of objections, this must count as quite an achievement.” He states his position; but straight away, he lets us know that he will shortly explain why he holds it. “Annie Get Your Gun has an infectiously happy Irving Berlin score and one of the feeblest books of all hit musicals. As an entertainment, it’s so undemanding that it’s almost demanding. When you think of all the neglected tuners that could be rehabilitated, it is a weird work for the Young Vic to be reviving. The perversity of choice is compounded by the self-defeating insanity of the execution. Director Richard Jones has had the whole of this wonderfully flexible space to play with and yet decided to confine the proceedings to a wide, narrow, virtually depthless slit of a letter box. To get much of a dance going in such straitened circumstances would be like trying to jump for joy while wedged in one’s coffin.”

Now I happen to disagree with Paul - I loved the production myself, as I stated in my own five-star Sunday Express review, and I even found the design a strength (“The innovative design of Ultz that frames the action in a letterbox-shaped stage gives it an unusual pictorial angle”). But I respect Paul’s opinion because he entirely explains where it comes from. And he also shows how well he knows the show, too, and others: “For reasons presumably of political correctness, the delightful number ‘I’m an Indian, Too’ has been cut, though we are allowed to hear the melody played on a distant cocktail bar piano in the New York hotel scene. That’s having it both ways, and then some. Whatever next at the Young Vic, one wonders. The Kabuki Calamity Jane? The Noh No, No Nanette?

And that’s also, as I’ve often said before, a particular strength of the current multiplicity of voices we have on the London critical scene: we can agree to disagree. But I’d rather disagree with Paul for the well-argued reasons he gives, than to agree with a columnist who states no reasons at all.

The prompter takes a bow….
There’s an interesting obituary for character actor John Joyce, who created the tiny role of the club secretary in the original production of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians in 1975, in today’s Guardian. He often worked with the late Ken Campbell, and once offered to be “on the book” for a 1997 revival of Campbell’s epic 22 hour The Warp (having played “many roles, coached the actors, organised rehearsals and helped keep the books” for its original production at the ICA in 1979). According to Michael Coveney’s obit, “Alan Cox heroically faltered in the final stages of the monster main part. Campbell brought Joyce on for a curtain call and Joyce said, with tears welling, that he felt he was taking that call for all the unacknowledged prompters in the history of theatre.”

And there was a lovely final chapter to his life, too — he did a kind of acting, of sorts, virtually to the end: “For the last 10 years of his life, he worked as a dummy patient in doctors’ training in London hospitals, work he enjoyed and which paid the rent.”

The wrath of Spacey….
In today’s Ephraim Hardcastle column in the Daily Mail, there’s a cautionary tale for all waiters who may find themselves serving Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey: “According to a local TV report, the actor and friends were dining at The Clarke Cooke House in Newport, Rhode Island, when they lit up cigarettes and were advised by waiter Peter Turner that smoking wasn’t allowed. Spacey is said to have ‘exploded’, telling Turner: ‘I need you to get the ** away from my table.’ Three days later he lost his job.”

Going all a-twitter at negative feedback…
The news earlier this week that Stephen Fry threatened to resign from Twitter after a negative comment was posted by a fellow user got a sympathetic response from performer David Schneider in Tuesday’s Guardian. “It may seem strange that the great man would worry about the opinion of one person but as a performer myself, I understood. Compliments are like water through fingers to a performer. Silky water, but water nevertheless. Who cares about a thousand compliments, a single insult confirms what we all deep down feel is true: that we’re rubbish, talentless, or, in my own case, ‘possessing a face that belongs on The X-Files’. Time was all you had to do was avoid the reviews and the odd tactless yawn in the audience but now everyone’s a critic. Every YouTube clip you’re in, every blog or article that’s posted online leaves space for comments. And Web 2.0 is not shy about telling you what it thinks. Unfortunately for some of us, the Ego 2.0 upgrades haven’t quite come in yet. So why not just avoid the comments? I wish it were that simple but we’re insecure performers. We need praise. If I ever have to check into the Priory it won’t be for drink or drugs or sex. It’ll be to try to stop me putting my name into Google. One friend of mine even occasionally checks his feedback on eBay for a little boost. The internet can toss us the treats we need but it’s a high-risk strategy and Twitter is the highest risk of all. Stephen Fry’s momentary wobble, which would have remained tactfully unseen a couple of years ago was suddenly 938,485 times more public. If you’re not careful, the effect is like having a microphone available 24 hours a day to go and say something funny into and have people clap approval.”

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