The theatre year is far from over, of course, but it is nearly for me: tomorrow I head off to Australia, via five days in LA first (not a city renowned for its theatre). So I’ll be on hiatus next week, and then resume from Down Under on a twice-weekly schedule every Tuesday and Thursday through to the middle of January.
But already on the end-of-year round-ups are starting to appear, even as early, in The Guardian’s case, as the first Monday of December, when they got their lead critics to jump the gun and choose their best shows of 2011.
Michael Billington pointed out how “the British theatre is living off its past”, with revivals of plays like Top Girls, Betrayal, Saved, The Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Barley and Flare Path making “a strong impression”, and adding, “Even the one new play that almost everyone enjoyed, Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors was a skilful reworking of an 18th-century classic.”
He notes that there’s “a vast quantity of new writing today”, but says “the quality is variable.” (The new plays that he singles out for praise are Mike Bartlett’s 13, which itself got distinctly variable notices elsewhere, Neighbourhood Watch, South Downs and Written on the Heart.)
But the danger of writing your end-of-term report before the term has officially ended are shown by the fact that later that same day his review for the Finborough’s premiere of Dawn King’s Foxfinder appeared online, which he says “along with Mike Bartlett’s 13 is the most compelling new work I have seen this year.”
It’s interesting to see how actors see interviews, or rather read them. Of course, they’re a necessary evil for some in the promotion game of a show, but as Bertie Carvel, writing a diary recently for the Evening Standard’s ES magazine, acknowledges a particular truth that they’re not necessarily exactly an actor’s own words spoken to that journalist that are reported (especially if Johann Hari or AA Gill is writing them up.
He writes, “It’s an odd experience reading interviews with yourself. Interesting, though. Of course, you know the journalist will have edited, rephrased or even re-written what you actually said, but you can’t help feeling that there’s a special kind of truth in the way someone else paints you, however subjective they might be. Perhaps it is a more reliable barometer of how strangers see you than, say, this diary, which I am writing myself, thinking it more honest this way - though I’m starting to wonder.”
He does, however, go on to comment, “But it is worrying when they kill off members of your family. I refer to one (very charming) interviewer who mistakenly reported that my mother had died over the summer — in fact it was my grandmother. Alarmed, my agent phoned in a well-intentioned but equally erroneous correction: it was now the turn of my aunt to have her sad demise pronounced. I don’t have a large family , so this simply isn’t sustainable.”
So I wonder just how accurately the Evening Standard magazine itself reported the words of Tim Minchin, the composer of Matilda, in a recent interview. But he certainly says a couple of provocative things: “I’m 36. Who’s going to be the Lloyd Webber/Rice of our generation? Who can be, with all the pressure, no grants, no funding? Who can write a subversive, cool musical from the ground up if it’s not me?”
The interviewer points out that Minchin has been compared to Lloyd Webber, and says that this must give him mixed feelings, as he’s far cooler than Lloyd Webber. Minchin, however, disagrees: “No, he’s a genius!” Minchin then goes on to talk of Lloyd Webber’s mixed public appeal, and says, “The English hate people who are established. They’ll hate me soon, hopefully, because one day I’ll be established.”
Last night Joe Penhall returned to the Royal Court with a new play Haunted Child, his first new play there since Dumb Show in 2004 that revolved around a tabloid journalism sting. In a recent interview in The Guardian, he commented drily, “It surprised me a little bit that the reviews were so partisan. It did seem to hurt journalists’ feelings. I thought: my God, they’re like a giant family, even theatre critics somehow feel blood-related to the tabloids.”
He also comments on the current popularity of the theatre based on star power: “”In the West End, it’s a counterfeit boom: based on all these movie actors getting the idea to come and boost their credibility in the theatre.”
He also reveals that he was taken off the US promotional tour for the film The Road that he wrote, for telling interviewers that the film was a demonstration to Americans of “where Christian fundamentalism and George W Bush had got them. I thought I was being really clever. Because, in the UK, that kind of comment would be quotable. But they fucking hated it. I got hauled off the tour. The Weinsteins came to me and said: you’re making people really angry and ruining our Oscar chances.”
Who decides what gets feature and review coverage in newspapers, and how do they decide? Typically, its the arts editor in the case of the arts, who may of course also attend daily editorial conferences and have to justify their choices. Recently, though, Private Eye pointed out that a new film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a new Australian-Chinese co-production that had been dubbed a “terrible melodrama” by The Independent on Sunday, “ponderous” by the Guardian and <”a deadly dull affair, predictable and plodding” by the Express, was given three star reviews by both The Times and the Sunday Times. And both papers also gave it feature space: in the Times, there was an interview with its director Wayne Wong, and in the Sunday Times, one with its composer. As Private Eye goes on to ask, “Why so? The film is produced by one Wendi Deng-Murdoch, more famous for her skills as a phantom pie flinger-fighter and marriage to the papers’ owner, Rupert Murdoch.”
Meanwhile, it’s equally curious that the Daily Mail, alone amongst national papers, bestowed a rare overnight review on a fringe production (it usually only reviews those on its Friday page, saving overnights only for big West End openings and sometimes those at Stratford or Chichester). It was for Judgment Day at the up-and-coming Print Room in Notting Hill, but it’s hardly news value that a fringe theatre is reviving a rare Ibsen play, even though it had a fine cast that included Michael Pennington and Penny Downie (but hardly names to set the average Daily Mail reader storming the box office).
Yet Patrick Marmion, the paper’s deputy critic duly filed an overnight review, which (amongst other things), praised “a very fine team” for their “undoubtedly stirring” production. Director James Dacre will no doubt be gratified by the priorities of the Mail’s editor with whom he coincidentally shares a surname — better known to young James, of course, as ‘Dad’.
Finally, thanks to Matt Trueman, who in his Noises Off blog for The Guardian yesterday, wondered aloud if I “might be the happiest man in the UK?” He bases the question on a study that says that “the three things that make us Brits happiest are sex, exercise and going to the theatre.” Matt obviously thinks I get a lot of all three! But there’s a fourth: a daily little white tablet, and no, it’s not called Ecstasy. (I get all the ecstasy I need from the theatre, the cross-trainer and my home life!)