On Sunday night I began the second series of These Are A Few Of My Favourite Songs at Soho Theatre, in which leading figures from different areas of the theatre talk about their lives and careers in the context of some of their favourite songs, some of which are sung live and others played on CD, with all proceeds benefitting the Theatrical Guild.
My guest on Sunday was Simon Russell Beale (who has just coincidentally become a patron of the Guild), joined by fellow Olivier Award winner Leanne Jones as singer (with an extra guest appearance on vocals by season pianist Ben Stock). And listening to Simon, my admiration for the man and his sincerity, honesty and modesty, multiplied the high regard I already hold for him as an actor. This coming Sunday I’m looking forward to welcoming Jeremy Sams, one of the brightest and most eclectic men I know and a true man of the theatre.
It will be apparent to anyone who comes to the talks that I love my job, just as much as my guests so transparently and infectiously do, too. I know just how privileged I am; what a joy to be able to talk to an actor like Simon for an hour and a half in front of a receptive audience. I’m also incredibly lucky to see all his onstage work, and invariably for free. I’ve often admitted that my own theatregoing habits, which are something of an addiction really, would be simply unsustainable if I had to pay for all my tickets.
But I still have my pet peeves, ranging from the small but inconvenient (like box offices that are surprised when you get there because the tickets you had confirmed with the press rep had failed to be communicated to them, as happened as recently as last Saturday afternoon when I went to see the transfer of Abigail’s Party from the Menier to Wyndham’s) to my wider (and now well documented!) intolerance of bad audience behaviour.
And there’s also the bigger problem of there simply being too much to see, but then that’s surely a nice problem to have: how lucky are we, as theatregoers and not just critics, by the wealth of enticing theatre there is to cover? No, I can’t see everything; even when I go every single night, and add matinees, too, many shows get away.
Particularly the ones that come and go fast: I would have liked to have seen Three Kingdoms last week at the Lyric Hammersmith, for instance, if only to see where I stood in the widely contradictory press reactions that stretched from Quentin Letts’s no stars review in the Daily Mail (“this show is magnificently bad, laughably awful, a real honking turkey (if turkeys honk)”) to the Daniel B Yates in the online-only Exeunt giving it five stars (“One of the best pieces of theatre, anywhere, you are likely to see this year”).
Maddy Costa, a regular Guardian arts writer who didn’t review it for them, has engaged in a dialogue via her blog about it that starts from the position, as she put it to playwright Simon Stephens in an e-mail she reprints to him, “Holy fucking Christ I’ve had some intoxicating nights in the theatre but that was really something else.”
In a separate Guardian blog, she characterises the dichotomy in reactions as clearly splitting “between newspaper critics who - you guessed it - are resistant to the work, and online writers who embrace it fervently.” But there’s a problem: “Such is the prevailing hierarchy of criticism, however, online writing is still essentially classed as word-of-mouth, while only the reviews published in mainstream media carry real weight.”
Not having seen the show, I cannot say where I personally stand on the debate; but it’s one of my least favourite things in dialogues like this is how selectively the data is presented. Actually, inconvenient though it may be to Costa’s argument about newspaper resistance, Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph, Paul Taylor in the Independent and Claire Allfree in Metro all gave it thoughtful three-star reviews.
Each of those reviews, of course, had to work within traditional print restraints; even the longest of their reviews — Dominic Cavendish’s in the Telegraph — ran to only 466 words; the others were even shorter. Costa, in her Guardian blog, refers the play’s “excess”, and suggests that the same excess “that exasperates critics required to distil Three Kingdoms down to a brief 500-word review is inspiring and thrilling to writers with unlimited space in which to tease out its complexities”; and it is revealing that her personal blog entry stretches to some 4,115 words by contrast.
But more is not necessarily better. I’d rather read 466 words of Cavendish, who distills plot, critical analysis, influences and atmosphere into those words in a way that makes me sorry I missed it, than over 4,000 words of blog analysis that comes to praise Stephens but ends up burying him. The occupying of an apparently higher moral — or supposedly better critical — ground is a different type of arrogance to the suggestion that the ‘traditional’ critics must have got it wrong because she hasn’t agreed with them.