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Shenton's View

Short Shorts 18

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!)


Utter bollocks to say that Patrick Marmion and I, writing in the Mail, "usually" only do overnight reviews of big shows. Quite often we do overnights of fringe shows to ensure that they receive some coverage because we know that it is unlikely that there will be room for them in the Mail's Friday arts pages.
Paul Dacre is admirably arms-length when it comes to us reviewing his son's shows. As for Patrick, he is his own man and a good one at that.
So, to repeat: utter bollocks by Mark.
Quentin Letts

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What an eloquent response Mr. Letts - very colourful for a Friday morning, obviously the outing of nepotism in your establishment brings the heckles and defences right up. Well you know how the old adage goes, "Those who shout loudest."

notice from your Tweet , Mark, that you are off for 5 weeks in Australia, L.A. etc. You seem to be in NYC or Las Vegas or Toronto or someplace every time we turn around.

The Stage isn't a wealthy posh journal. Even Variety has stringers in London and Toronto etc who cover openings - they don't send their US based critics all over the world.

So what's up? Are you or your partner independently wealthy - or does The Stage have a vault of money kept aside for the Mark Shenton travel fund?

Prying? Yes. Want to know? Yes. Should you tell? Yes!!!!

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Sorry, Quentin, you say that you "quite often" overnight on fringe shows "because we know that it is unlikely that there will be room for them in the Mail's Friday arts pages". The clear implication of this is that, under Paul Dacre's editorship, it's easier to get a fringe review on to the news pages. Shome mishtake, shurely?

My own impression is that such overnight reviews are carried on the Mail's news pages (indeed, on any paper's news pages) only when there's some element that makes them newsworthy, such as a famous name. (I seem to recall, for instance, that twice since the state of Trevor Nunn's marriage hit the headlines you've reviewed small-scale shows featuring Imogen Stubbs, whom you've ostentatiously called "Lady Nunn" even though she never used the title herself.) And, as Mark observes, those involved in the Print Room production are, notwithstanding their considerable abilities, "hardly names to set the average Daily Mail reader storming the box office". Perhaps you could explain what you, or Patrick, or your editor, the director's father - or whoever took the decision to give this show an overnight review on the Mail's news pages - thought was newsworthy enough about it to earn its space there?

You say that "Paul Dacre is admirably arms-length when it comes to us reviewing his son's shows". Forgive me, but this isn't quite the same as saying that he took no active role in the decision to cover Judgement Day the way it was covered, with an overnight review carried on the news pages. Could you perhaps say that unambiguously? And, if the decision was entirely yours and/or Patrick's, can you also please confirm that awareness of Dacre's status as your editor and the director's father played no part in the decision? For of course, self-censorship is the most pernicious form of censorship, and deciding what to cover can be as much a form of censorship as deciding what to ignore or suppress. (I doubt, for instance, that Richard Desmond actively instructed the Daily Express to give half a page in its news section today to coverage of his birthday party.) So it would be helpful if you could clarify this point.

And really, for someone who makes such a point of condemning "bad language" on stage to call Mark's observation "utter bollocks", right here out on the Internet where children might see it... do we really need that? Twice?

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John Roberts: fair dos, the Mail didn't, I think, cover James Dacre's production of The Mountaintop at all on its première at Theatre 503 in 2009, nor do I think it overnighted that show's transfer to Trafalgar Studios. Nor, indeed, did it cover his NYT Orpheus And Eurydice this summer.

Which makes the fact that it was the only paper to overnight Judgement Day all the more conspicuous.

As I say, there's no evidence whatever that Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail's famously hands-on editor and the director's father, played any active role in getting that show reviewed on his paper's news pages, alone among all other papers, within hours of the opening-night curtain. But as I also say, that's not the same as saying that Paul Dacre's relationship to James Dacre was entirely irrelevant in the decision to cover this production in the Mail in a way unlike any other paper, and I think explicit and clear confirmation of this point would be helpful.

@Lewis: I don't have an obligation to respond to your prying question -- it is no business of yours whatsoever how my financial affairs are organised -- but of course one of the issues of putting one's life on public display, as I regularly do in this blog, is that it invites such prurient interest.

Suffice it to say that, as you may or may not be aware, THE STAGE is not my sole employer, and that I also work INCREDIBLY hard (even if I say so myself), and I will still be working on much of this trip.

I do, however, have certain critical privileges -- virtually my entire entertainment budget is taken care of by virtue of the fact that I don't have to pay for most of my theatre tickets, and given that if I was in a 'regular' job, my theatregoing habit would be financially unsupportable, unless I was earning a LOT more, that takes care of a big chunk of my possible outgoings. So I am able to save money on entertainment and put it towards travel.

We all make choices in our lives, and I'm lucky -- and indeed privileged -- to have had mine work out for me. But sometimes, too, you make your own luck, and earn your privileges.

Reply to Ian Shuttleworth, having just seen his note:
Yup, I am saying, without hesitation, that Paul had nothing to do with the decision to review the play. He did not talk to me about it before. Nor did he talk to my arts desk colleagues. Nor did he talk to Patrick. I don't know if he has even met Patrick. And yes, it is often easier to get a review on to the news pages as an overnight review because, you great dimwit, they are NEWSY. The Friday arts page often has an unpredictable advertising load, sometimes nonot decided until about 6pm, and if we suddenly have to lose a quarter of a page we are more likely to drop the fringe review than the West End opening. Shuttleworth not being widely experienced in newspapers, he might not know that but those are the realities of newspaper production. As for "bollocks", I'd call that salty language, sure. Having written a book called "Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain", Ican hardly claim to be saintly. My argument about bad language on stage is not that it should never be heard. It is that it should be appropriate to the forum. I reckon Stage readers are just about able to handle bollocks, if we can phrase it like that.
Shenton and Shuttleworth can slag me off as much as they like - indeed they usually do - but Patrick Marmion is a good bloke and they should not try to depict him as some editor's patsy.

...and (leaving aside your ignorance of my 20+ years of professional editorial experience and your vague rationalisation that swearing's OK when you do it because you do it responsibly) if, instead of throwing around insults whilst complaining that you're the one being slagged off, you'd care at any point to address the specific points Mark and/or I raised about whether and how fringe productions and in particular that one are judged "newsy" by the Mail, and about the possibility of indirect influence as well as direct, then I'll be at least as keen to read that response as your last partial and partially relevant one.

But let's keep things in perspective: even in the worst case scenario, that incident is sub-microscopic compared with the breathtaking conduct outlined at

Let's face it (no pun intended), the theatre critic of the Daily Mail appears to be following an agenda, which is probably set by his employers, which is to try and destabilise any arts body receiving a public subsidy. Hence his shocking criticism of the production of "Saved". He would do well to remember that in an era when most intelligent people with a hobby such as theatre write, blog and review, the days of critics having much influence are at an end.

@Ian: I read the link about Mr Letts's shocking behavior following "Saved" at the Lyric Hammersmith. Surely that is unenthical behavior in the world of journalism. How can this be allowed? Isn't there some accountability in the halls of the Daily Mail???

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