It’s very easy to throw both praise and brickbats around a little too indiscriminately. People will conversationally often say something is the best or worst thing ever, to somehow give their opinion about it extra weight; but it actually usually has the paradoxical effect for me of giving that opinion less weight, because I think that they simply cannot have thought it through enough.
Yet yesterday I wrote a blog in which I described a revival of Pippin that I saw at the Bridewell in the late 90s as “hands down, the worst musical revival I have ever seen, before or since”. I assure you that I had thought that one through, and though memory has a pleasant way of erasing some poor productions, the truly terrible ones do stand out: I can still feel the pain of it.
That’s partly, of course, as I also wrote here yesterday because the show itself occupies a special place in my heart, so the stakes were rather higher. I’ve also hated Broadway revivals of two classics 1776 and Finian’s Rainbow, for instance, but then it was partly because I couldn’t see the point of reviving the shows in the first place.
New shows, of course, are even harder to pin down in a historical continuum. Only time will tell where they sit, so it’s a rash critic who pronounces that something that has just opened is the worst ever. After enduring the premiere of Stephen Poliakoff’s My City at the Almeida last week, for instance, I tweeted that it was the “worst new play of year so far”. That much was certainly relatively easy to determine, since I only had to scroll through nine months of memories (and have a quick flick through my diary).
But last weekend, I found an unlikely ally of my dislike for the play in the Sunday Telegraph’s Tim Walker, who went even further in his no-star review: “It is quite simply the worst play I have seen”, and ended it, “This is rubbish, Mr Poliakoff”. Even as much as I disliked the play, I wanted to say, “This is rubbish, Mr Walker”. If it’s really true, you’ve simply not seen enough plays.
A couple of days after My City, however, just around the corner from the Almeida in Islington, I endured what is easily the worst play that Oscar Wilde may have had a hand in: Constance. I’ve already blogged about the controversy behind its authorship, which in fact is easily more interesting than the play. As I tweeted after seeing it, “If Constance is by Wilde, then these tweets are by Kenneth Tynan, back from the dead.” Paul Taylor was even funnier in his review in The Independent: “All I can say is that if Wilde is the primary author of Constance, then I am Lady Augusta Bracknell and Dame Edith Evans combined.”
One wag (himself an Independent critic) immediately replied when I posted that on Twitter, “I thought Paul Taylor was Lady Augusta Bracknell and Dame Edith Evans combined”. But the King’s Head, it turns out, is shamelessly, or rather desperately depending on your perspective, hoping that this controversy might help the box office, and yesterday its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher sent out this touching missive to its e-mailing list: “Critics, scholars and even Wilde’s own blood relatives have clashed in a dispute over its provenance. The King’s Head would like to invite you to weigh in on the debate. We value your opinions: you are the life-blood of our theatre. So, by using the code displayed below when booking, you can come down and make your voice heard at the discounted ticket price of £10. One thing that I’m sure you’ll agree is that the show’s ‘infectious’ cast (British Theatre Guide) and the ‘Wildean… breast-beating melodrama’ (The Times) make this a truly unmissable show.” I just hope that the infectious cast don’t pass whatever it is they’re suffering from to any unsuspecting punters.
Last night was the first of four designated critics’ previews for Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury, before its official opening next Tuesday, and we’re of course embargoed from publishing our reviews till then. But how far does that embargo stretch? Some critics, myself included, don’t just review, we also tweet. My own view is that a tweet comprises a critical opinion, and so that’s included in the sphere of the spirit of the embargo.
But last night I returned from seeing it to find that one critical tweeter, who goes under the twitter name @carriesparkle, had, during the interval, pronounced this: “Am absolutely hating Rock of Ages” (It was posted at 8.46pm). Then, immediately after the show ended, she returned to declare, “What a dreadful, rancid, ugly piece of work. Things that Rock of Ages finds funny: the gays, the lesbians, transsexuals, foreigners, bestiality, paedophilia, death… Also, women are virgins or whores, of course, and the virgins all just secretly want a good seeing-to. The strippers are prostitutes, and they all dress the same as barmaids and rock chicks.”
She then added, “My review is embargoed till next week though.” But hadn’t she just given it?
Finally, also at Rock of Ages, there were some interesting variations on the now usual pre-show announcements to get you to turn your mobile phone off, including a declaration that “texting during the show makes you look like a douche bag”.
That raised a smile for me; you’ll have to wait for my review to find out whether I smiled again during the course of the show that followed. But it also reminded me of a rather more severe notice that I saw published in the Scarborough programme for Neighbourhood Watch last week: “Please be aware that the rustling of sweet papers, bleeping of digital watches, the taking of notes and other noises can be distracting both to the actors and other members of audience. Please turn off mobile phones.” Of course, the line that got my attention there was the one about the taking of notes. It’s what critics do when they see a show. Others, of course, may just be compiling their shopping lists. (Sometimes critics do that, too, while they’re ostensibly taking notes on the show).
I realise that in an auditorium in the round like the one at Scarborough you are keenly aware of what the rest of the audience is doing. But they might as well add, “Falling asleep can be distracting to the actors and other members of the audience,” as well. Going to a matinee at the Orange Tree in Richmond, for instance, which is also in the round, it’s sometimes impossible to watch the play while you’re counting all the sleeping heads.