At last night’s opening of Aspects of Love, I asked producer David Babani how the show is selling. “Great, but we still need the reviews,” he said. (He must be relieved this morning, since the reviews I’ve seen so far have seen it receive four stars from The Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail, with a three star from the Daily Express). But while the Menier can nowadays command a full compliment of critics on its first nights - in addition to the overnights above, also in attendance were The Guardian, Standard, FT, The Independent, The Observer, Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Express (me!), and Time Out - that feast means there’s a critical famine elsewhere.
I was quoting Lyn Gardner just yesterday who pointed out, “Back in the late 1980s, when I worked on a London listings magazine, deciding what to review was easy: we reviewed everything that opened and would still be on when the next issue was published. That came to about 10 shows a week.” Nowadays there can be three or four shows a night vying for critical attention in London alone, and some shows inevitably get lost in the shuffle.
When I produced Shrunk at the Cock Tavern in May, I was lucky when many of my colleagues chose to come to the wrong end of the Kilburn High Road on a Friday night to visit a venue many had never ventured to before to see it. I know that they came partly out of loyalty to me, but mainly, I hope, for their interest in the second play of Charlotte Eilenberg, a playwright whose first, The Lucky Ones, had won both the Critics’ Circle and Olivier Awards for most promising playwright. As it happens, there was a clash that night, too, with the opening of another play at the Arcola; and I had an intriguing exchange with the press representative for that production, who instead of accepting that this interest might be warranted, wrote to me to say, “Your success is very much at my expense”.
But it happens all the time. Just last week a new musical Wolfboy opened at the Trafalgar Studios 2 - on the same night that Improbable’s Lifegame returned to the Lyric Hammersmith and LIFT imported Aftermath from New York to the Old Vic Tunnels. We can’t split ourselves in three, even though I sometimes try, so a handful of us went to Lifegame (Henry Hitchings for the Standard, Jeremy Kingston for the Times and Lyn Gardner for The Guardian, as well as myself as I reported here, several more to Aftermath, but hardly anyone at all to Wolfboy.
This has led to the unfortunate situation, at least, for the show’s producers and youthful cast and composer, that they’ve only had one national review to judge themselves against, and it was a total pan. Sam Marlowe, writing in The Times, gave it a no-star review which began by saying, “What a nasty little mess this witless new musical is. Written by Russell Labey and Leon Parris and loosely based on Bard Fraser’s 1989 play, it’s a stomach-turning stew of horror-shlock and po-faced sentimentality, made more revolting by its ill-judged treatment of paedophilia.”
The full review is, of course, now hidden behind the Rupert Murdoch paywall, so doesn’t even come up on a google search, for which relief the producers must be giving much thanks. But if the effect of that review is therefore diluted, it’s also a pity that there’s been no alternative critical voice in the national press to check that opinion against, though reviews both here in The Stage and on Whatsonstage suggest an alternative critical narrative.
That, at least, has always been the strength of the British critical press: that there are so many of us that no one voice prevails, as it has traditionally on Broadway where the New York Times used to hold sway above all. (It has been losing some of this ground over the last few years, as marketing has got cleverer and its own circulation has plummeted). But if only one national voice speaks, there’s a danger that it’s the only one that is going to be heard. Trafalgar Studios offers a major opportunity for smaller companies and emerging talent to showcase their work, but if it is ignored by the major press outlets, it’s the equivalent of the famous question that asks if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
In fact Trafalgar Studios 2 may partly be a victim of its own recent poor programming: like the King’s Head or Jermyn Street, it has often allowed in so many poor quality rentals that its own brand as a supposedly innovative space has been compromised, and it needs to re-establish critical trust. When there’s too much to see anyway, you tend to avoid venues where you’ve recently had a rubbish time, as witness shows there like Dirty White Boy or Confessions of a Dancewhore.
But Wolfboy, for all Sam Marlowe’s displeasure with it - or in fact partly because of her displeasure for it, which awoke my curiosity - is far from a catastrophe in that league. I wouldn’t go so far, as Stephen Fry did in a tweet after seeing it on Wednesday, to dub it “shatteringly excellent”. But I would say that it is insinuatingly strange and weirdly compelling, and doesn’t deserve to be ignored by the press. But then, with The Times only being seen by its own readers nowadays, it has a far smaller reach than, say, Stephen Fry does with his 1.6m tweet followers. So perhaps that single tweet will speak louder than any review.