February 18: The lasting impact of a negative review

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In a free-for-all age of journalism, the currency of individual theatre reviews matter a lot less than they used to; all a theatre PR wants is a spread of five-star reviews, and they’re easier to summons than ever if you don’t look too closely which publications they come from. The general public won’t notice the difference, so its a bluff that often works.

Of course, there’s still a discerning public that still reads them for guidance — or better, for pleasure — but there aren’t enough reliable critics about to provide much of either. I can count on one hand the number of critics I can trust and depend on nowadays, and on two fingers those I read for the pure pleasure of their prose.

Whatever you may have thought of the opinions of Michael Billington, Benedict Nightingale, Paul Taylor or Charlie Spencer — the critics for the four daily broadsheets when I started out as a critic — you were always assured of a good read; while the Sundays also offered the literary pleasures of Susannah Clapp (pictured above), the late John Peter and Kate Bassett, even if you didn’t agree with them or even bothered to see the shows they were writing about. (Thank God Susannah is still in post).

But if critics matter less partly because the critics themselves are mostly diminished writers, and are a lot less regarded by the public — if ever they were — there is one readership to whom they matter as much as ever: namely, those who are being written about. And of course, there’s a double paradox here: firstly the one that actors routinely dismiss the very idea that they read them at all; and secondly, the fact that reviews are essentially not written for them, but for the readers.

Yet actors still make the mistake of reading them. In a lovely series of curated chats by Guardian theatre editor Chris Wiegand, actors are paired to remember their careers. This week Derek Jacobi was paired with Simon Callow, and it’s clear that the critics judgements often stung.

Recalling being cast as Orlando in As You Like it at the National in 1979, Simon Callow said:

People expect Orlando to be this gorgeous thing. I made the mistake of listening to the radio review of the production in my dressing room. I remember hearing Michael Billington say to Stanley Wells: “And what about Simon Callow?” And Stanley Wells saying: “Well, lacking in glamour surely!”

And he adds:

“They cling to you like burrs, these judgments. I played Verlaine in Total Eclipse at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1981. I was very happy with the performance. Then I read James Fenton, the critic in the Sunday Times, who said my stomach was “a warning to us all”. I’d been in my underpants in the play. It’s very hard once you’ve got a line like that in your head – it limits you.”

I once participated in a seminar on critics with a panel that included Lyn Gardner, then on The Guardian; and I’ll never forget her saying that she tried never to be too mean about actors as she was mindful that they would have to return and face another audience after reading a review she may have written, but the same consideration didn’t necessarily apply to a director or writer who may have already left the scene.

That’s true, except they have long memories, too. I was once friendly with a producer of a musical that had become a global smash hit, and was a big fan of myself. But then she produced another musical that was a true turkey. (I still remember that on the first night, I was sitting a couple of rows behind David Beckham and his wife Victoria, so at least I had something pretty to look at during the show). Anyway, I — in common with pretty much all my colleagues — panned it. A few months later, I was at another first night, and she came up to me with a glint in her eyes. “Shenton, I want to cut off your balls!”, she declared. I asked what had upset her. “Your review — it made me cry!” I explained that I had to do my professional duty and call it as I saw it. To which she responded, “But I thought we were friends!”

I didn’t think of it at the time, alas, but the response I should have said would have been: “And friends tell each other the truth”.

I was also reminded just last week of a more lasting impact a review I once wrote had on a creative. Marcus Markou, now a film-maker, tweeted this:

He had written, directed and produced a play called Age-Sex-Location at Riverside Studios in 2004, which was about the world of internet chat rooms, and it’s fair to say I wasn’t a fan.

I was able to make a kind of amends on Twitter last week: I responded, “Very happy to have inspired your change of direction. But sorry for the harshness.” To which he, in turn, responded: “Ha ha! It’s okay Mark.”

Bad reviews clearly linger on in the memories of those who’ve been on the receiving end of them. In 1982, the great, late Diana Rigg asked her fiends and colleagues for some of their worst-ever reviews, and collected them into a book called No Turn Unstoned [pictured above] that still has pride of place on my bookshelf.

It was obviously compiled long before I was in the critical business myself, so I’m not memorialised between its covers. But in 2011, when she was appearing in a revival of Pygmalion in the West End, I interviewed her and asked her if she’d considered an updated edition, and was still collecting reviews from colleagues. Simon Ward was in the production — but subsequently withdrew because of ill-health, before he died — and she told me that he had shared one of his recent reviews with her: he’d appeared in a production of The Madness of George III [pictured above], for which one critic had described him as “playing it like a permanently perplexed Ann Widdicombe.”

At the time I gulped inwardly, as I recognised my own words coming back to haunt me! But when I interviewed her again in 2016, I confessed; and she said, “How sweet!”

So I asked her the new song `”Ah, but underneath” that Stephen Sondheim wrote for her character Phyllis Stone in the 1987 London premiere of Follies [pictured above] was also inspired by her: in particular, the lyric, “No one dared to query her superior exterior”. She replied, “It was his take on me.”

And I then dared to recall a review that Rigg had included in her book about herself, in which New York critic John Simon had referred to her, in a play in which she had appeared naked on Broadway, as being “built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses.” Was Simon, I asked her, daring to query her inferior posterior?

No, she replied in an instant; “it was actually my inferior tits, actually, not posterior! But I don’t care — who cares about John Simon? It was a cheap shot at fame.”

And that’s the way to rise above a negative review!