May 14: The importance of critical honesty

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the dayLeave a Comment

And is it possible for critics and theatre people to be friends?

I’m unashamedly a friend and champion of the theatre; but I can never be a simple cheerleader for it, regardless of the circumstances or my connections with people in a show I’m seeing. As honest critics find out all too often, we’re loved when we love something we see; but that can quickly pivot to becoming the enemy when we don’t.

It’s why friendships with theatre professionals isn’t always a good idea for critics. Though they are sometimes inevitable, given that it is mainly theatre folk I meet in my life, at least at the moment; next week I move out of London to live in a village in the countryside of the South Downs in West Sussex.

So I’m hoping I’ll connect more with my new local community, though I know I’m actually moving to an area where there are plenty of theatre folk, too; I hear that Maggie Smith, for instance, is known to shop at my nearest Waitrose in Storrington, at least as she told it on the Graham Norton show a few years ago. (I met her a few years ago when I was presenting her with a Critics’ Circle Award for lifetime achievement, pictured above, and had discovered then that we actually both had our hips replaced by the same surgeon, so we already have something else in common, too!) Maggie, of course, had been a star of Olivier’s National company in its earliest days, including when it was based at Chichester Festival Theatre (pictured below, when she played Desdemona opposite Olivier’s Othello there in 1964), which will be my new ‘local’.

And I already have some friends in the surrounding areas, like Joe Harmston, a theatre director (and house builder, who built his own home in Barnham, a train stop away from Chichester) and Lucy Anderson-Jones (fund-raising and development manager for London Bubble) who is in Bognor Regis. Plus I’ve also had messages from other near-neighbours like Daniel Evans (artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre), the brilliant film and theatre composer David Arnold, theatre designer Lez Brotherston and theatre producer Stephen McGill, too…..

So I may actually have more theatre folk on my doorstep than I even currently have in Southwark, SE1, come to think of it.

But when I have forged friendships with actors, directors and writers, it’s always been on the implicit understanding that we’ll not let work come between us. And thankfully, those friends have (mostly) stuck to the deal. I’m really proud of the fact that the day after a play that Michael Grandage had directed on Broadway a few years ago, we met for coffee on 8th Avenue, and he told me that the show’s press agent had sent him over the reviews that morning, with the best on top and the worst on the bottom — and mine was at the bottom of the pile. Michael was able to accept that the play wasn’t for me (though it had been better embraced by the more important New York Times, so its not as if he needed my endorsement anyway, though he was far too polite to say so!)

But then it was Michael who, on one of our regular lunch dates in London, had arrived conveying a message from his friend Rob Ashford, whose production of The Entertainer had opened the night before at the Garrick Theatre with Kenneth Branagh, to thank me for my review; I replied pointing out that Rob wouldn’t have thanked me for my review of his previous production for the Branagh company of Romeo and Juliet. “No,” Michael replied, “but that’s how he knows you really mean it now.”

In other words, theatre people usually take the rough with the smooth; you don’t define a critic by the last review they gave of your work, however friendly we are outside of the theatre, which is a work environment for both parties.

However, I have also sadly lost friendships over reviews I’ve written, too: when I wasn’t very complimentary about a touring musical that a friend was in, she blocked me on Twitter and unfriended me on Facebook. I sent her a private message to say that I understood why she wouldn’t have wanted to read unflattering comments on her timeline of a show she was actually in, but that my respect for her talent was undiminished; not only did she not reply, but the next time I saw her at a theatre awards ceremony, she came over to talk to someone at the table I was seated at, and completely snubbed me.

It said a lot more about her, I reckon, than it did about me; I was especially saddened, however, as she’d actually sung at a party I held in London, after getting married in New York a couple of months before, for most of my friends who’d not been able to get to New York. And coincidentally, it was a real pleasure that a couple of London theatre friends — the directors Kerry Michael and Hugh Wooldridge — happened (separately) to be in New York at the time of our wedding, so were able to join my New York friends (and my mother, brother and his wife, plus a couple of London friends who’d made it over.

Just as I’ve twice been to the New York weddings of other theatre friends: Australian musical theatre composer Eddie Perfect, who would go on to score both King Kong and Beetlejuice, and actor Cush Jumbo. The former was held in Central Park (which I subsequently shamelessly copied for my own wedding there, choosing the same spot and even employing the same wedding celebrant); the latter was on the stage of the Circle in the Square (pictured above), when Cush was starring opposite Hugh Jackman in the Broadway premiere of Jez Butterworth’s The River, held after a Sunday matinee. I didn’t make special trips for either; I just happened to be in town when these were happening, so they both asked me.

My proudest boast, however, was actually being asked to officiate the wedding of one of my closest New York theatre chums, composer Dana P Rowe and his now-husband Andrew Scharf, for which I got myself ordained (with the Universal Life Church, online for about $40) and registered with City Hall to do so (pictured below).

So having begun this column by saying that theatre friendships are not necessarily a good idea for a critic, my own life regularly disproves it. We’re only human, after all; and friendships, above all, are one of the defining parts of all of our lives. So it’s only natural that we’ll bond with people who have shared interests.

But over the last decade or so, as I’ve been more honest about my own mental health challenges, I’ve established even deeper connections with other theatre people. We have shared experiences that transcend the theatre; and some of them I have also met in the rooms of two twelve-step recovery fellowships I’m a part of. It was, in fact, an actor who introduced me to one of the fellowships, and I’m eternally grateful: he changed my life forever. It’s not many people you can say that about.

I regularly hear my life experiences reflected back to me in songs from musicals, and here’s one from Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked that says it all:

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you

Thank you, Nick.

“Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good”

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