I always say there is no true objectivity in reviewing; we inevitably bring who we are to what we write, and it is sometimes (though we try to make adjustments for personal circumstances) dictated by just how we are feeling that day. You’re not always in the mood for Chekhovian or Ibsenite misery; or the last thing you want to see is a jaunty musical. But the press night diary isn’t set by what happens to us in our daily lives; we have to try to leave them at the door.
But we can’t get check our skins, thin or thick, or our own life experiences into the cloakroom. So its refreshing when a critic at least acknowledges where they are coming from. And as my good friend Charlie Spencer came back to the critical beat last week after a temporary hiatus, he publicly declared the reason for his absence in his first review back of Kissing Sid James at Jermyn Street Theatre.
In his opening paragraph he wrote, “No one could accuse Kissing Sid James of being a comic masterpiece, but after three months off work with clinical depression it struck me as being just what the doctor ordered.”
Charlie, more than most, refreshingly, and sometimes painfully, puts himself and his own life on the line in many of his reviews. Nowhere was this represented more keenly than in the review he wrote of a revival of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed at Northampton in 2010
As he put it, “Short of putting the boot into guide dogs for the blind, or condemning the folly of children collecting milk bottle tops for the Blue Peter appeal, it is hard to imagine how David Hare could have written a more misguided and malign play than My Zinc Bed. His heroic task here is to give Alcoholics Anonymous a good kicking. How brave! How controversial!”
Strong words indeed; but he’d had first-hand experience, he immediately went on to reveal. “The piece was first staged at the Royal Court in 2000, when I gave it a cravenly easy ride. At the time, I was in deep denial about my own alcoholism and lacked the courage and the knowledge to take Hare properly to task. Two months later I was in the Priory, and crucified with nerves before being bussed to my first AA meeting. My memory of Hare’s play was part of my problem, for he makes AA sound only marginally less sinister than the Mafia.”
Charlie could not only relate to the play first-hand, but also was upset about its portrait of AA, which he calls “one of the few entirely benign organisations ever devised and in its 75 years it has saved many millions from misery and slow, horrible deaths.” He concludes, “My Zinc Bedcould actively deter those with a drink problem from seeking their best chance of recovery. It’s not just a bad play. It is a wicked one, too.”
The Independent’s Paul Taylor has also sometimes declared himself and his own direct experiences of the subject: in his review of Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears about a female bipolarity sufferer, seen at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010, he wrote that he had doubts about the subject being turned into a play: “My misgivings were exacerbated by the fact that I myself am bipolar.”
He admits, “My case is not nearly as severe as that of Kay, the protagonist… but it has taken an intermittently costly toll on my family and me.” He also added, “To commission a bipolar critic to review a play about the consequences of bipolarity might be thought by some to be roughly akin to hiring a horse to predict the first three past the post in the Grand National or (a joke that Beckett- loving bipolar sufferers will appreciate) to order the boot that’s on the other foot to judge an arse-kicking contest. But while allowing that it’s perfectly possible to be both an authority on the subject and a sufferer, as witness Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of the classic Touched by Fire, it’s important that those with insider knowledge, so to speak, don’t imagine that they have a monopoly of wisdom on the topic or that those who come at it from the outside are guilty of tourism. ”
Sometimes, of course, a play is just outside of a critic’s own experience. In his two-star review of Jumpy, newly transferred to the Duke of York’s, Andrzej Lukowski begins his review by declaring, “As a 31-year-old father of none, I will put my hand up and say that I’m probably not in the target demographic for April de Angelis’s comedy Jumpy.”
I’m not a dad, either, but I am, like the lead character, hurtling towards 50 (heck, I’m two days away now) and desperately sympathetic about her loss of ideals and stale marriage. On the other hand, I’m personally in a happy new marriage myself, as regular readers of this blog will know. In fact, this blog has exposed a lot about myself to the world because it is a different type of writing to reviewing, and is a place where I can sometimes put myself centrestage, as I did when writing about my wedding in New York in July.
Even so, I have regularly declared myself in my reviewing, too. When The Vagina Monologues first opened at the Arts in London back in 2001, I was writing then for Whatsonstage, and the editor commissioned a fascinating experiment: to have it reviewed four times over, by a straight woman, a gay woman, a straight man and a gay man. I was the latter, and wrote that, unlike The Puppetry of the Penis, “The Vagina Monologues is altogether more cerebral and celebratory: a verbal rather than a visual experience. For which, as a gay man (but heterosexual virgin), I was quite relieved. Of all four viewpoints expressed here, mine is undoubtedly the least qualified, in terms of direct experience of the subject matter. The only time I’ve been inside one was at my birth; and I’ve since only ever seen one in close up once, and then purely by theatrical accident. It was at the ICA (where else?), and I’d gone to see one of Simon Munnery’s brilliant League Against Tedium comedy shows. As we entered the auditorium, we were invited to look through a magnifying spyglass cut into a barrel; inside, a woman was pleasuring herself.”
Reviewing Naked Boys Singing for the same, er, organ, I had more personal experience, but paradoxically less enjoyment, writing, “For a gay man like me who likes nothing better than listening to showtunes and seeing naked men, this should be just the ticket. But I can listen to my CDs and check out the view in the showers at my gym (another gay phenomenon that makes an appearance here) every morning for free. This show is strictly for those who either don’t get out much, or don’t otherwise get it much.”