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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE.

They shoot critics, don’t they?

In these fractious, polarized times, it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be a critic. It is a critic’s JOB, after all, to be CRITICAL, where necessary, and not just to offer slavish praise. Of course it has been said that if you’ve not got anything nice to say about somebody, you shouldn’t say it at all — especially now, in these “Be Kind” days — but that’s to fundamentally misunderstand what critics are employed to do.

I used to say that one of the functions of a critic is to see the shows so you don’t have to, but nowadays I prefer to say that it helps to have others out there to offer guidance that enables audiences to make up their OWN minds about whether to see something or not.

It’s impossible to see EVERYTHING, so some sort of informed guidance is helpful. How you act on that, of course, is up to you, but a regular reader of critics will come to know those whose tastes align with their own, and who they can usefully disregard entirely, (Everyone has a right to express their opinions, but not all opinions are equal).

Or sometimes not. In the days of Nicholas de Jongh on the Standard, his usually opposing point of view was equally useful; if he LIKED something, I knew I could easily skip it. And if he didn’t. it might have merit.

This comes into sharp relief when a show gets widely divergent reactions, like BLACK LOVE currently at the Kiln. When it was premiered in a Paines Plough tour last year, The Stage’s Angelo Irving gave it a five-star rave, calling it “a beautiful and essential piece of theatre”.

Transferred now to the Kiln, however, Clive Davis in The Times gives it a one-star drubbing. Davis’s review ends by asking, “Why do cultural institutions seem determined to patronise minority writers by promoting work that is so clearly substandard? It ticks ideological boxes, yes, but it helps nobody in the end.”

Of course there’s nothing like seeing the show for yourself and making up your own mind; but that’s not always possible. As a critic myself, I rely on my colleagues to help direct me where I should spend some of my time, especially now that I’m limiting myself to four or five shows a week; living outside London means I have to.

But nowadays, too, critics are no longer the last word on a show, or even the first, but part of an evolving conversation on a particular show. And the theatremakers are themselves increasingly a welcome part of it. Black Love’s playwright Chinonyerem Odimba has duly taken her beef with The Times review to Twitter, as is her right; she wants to defend the play, after all.

And she has many friends and associates rushing to her defence, too. One is a theatre marketing manager called Holly Adomah Thompson who makes this point in a thread:

They are of course right that theatremakers want sympathetic critics, or at least ones receptive to different experiences and the stories that are being told in different ways; but the research being called for should go in both directions.

Many of those commenting seem to be unaware that Clive Davis is himself a critic of colour (one of only two in the national press to hold full-time critical positions); it’s been disconcerting to watch many white commentators accusing him of racism in his response to the play. And it makes me wonder: do they not actually know Clive’s background at all?

Other commentators variously claim “the Times review is “trash trash trashedy trash”, “violence”, “indefensibly cruel”, and “completely unhinged!” (the latter two from fellow playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm) and, from the playwright herself,  “a lynching”. And critics are called “a little boys club” that dismiss the show because it hasn’t centred them.

 Of course Twitter is a place well suited to this kind of insult, not reasoned discourse. Davis’s actual review, meanwhile, has got buried in the din.

Mike Bartlett scores a theatrical hat-trick

This Friday, playwright Mike Bartlett (pictured below) sees the press opening of THE 47TH, his new play about Donald Trump, at the Old VIc, and the first preview of SCANDALTOWN, modelled on a Restoration comedy, at the Lyric Hammersmith.

They join the ongoing revival of COCK at the Ambassadors (yes, the one that Taron Egerton has now withdrawn from); in an interview with Barlett in yesterday’s TIMES, Andrew Billen noted,

“Shakespeare, pretty much always. Andrew Lloyd Webber, as recently as 2019. Agatha Christie, the only woman to have done so (in 1954). Nonetheless, it is still rare for a playwright to have three (or more) plays running simultaneously in London. This month Mike Bartlett, the writer of the TV show Doctor Faustus, joins the pantheon when two new works by him arrive in town to join the West End revival of his 2009 play COCK.”

Asked for his professional highlight of the last decade in 2019, James Graham replied, “I guess having two plays on the same West End street was lots of fun. A coincidence that I can’t really take credit for, but a highlight nonetheless.” That was when his play INK played side-by-side at the Duke of York’s with QUIZ at the Noel Coward, transferred from the Almeida and Chichester, respectively.

Speaking to THE TIMES yesterday, Barlett also qualifies his achievement, telling him that writers have little say on the timing of productions. “But it’s amazing.”

His interviewer Andrew Billen also mentions to Barlett that he and his contemporaries Jack Thorne and James Graham “now light up theatre front-of-houses in the way Stoppard, Pinter and Hare did 30 years ago. He replies he is already looking over his shoulder at the next generation of writers. ‘[John] Osborne wrote his best play at 26’.”

And Billen adds: “Anticipating my next question about the relative absence of female playwrights, Bartlett adds to my list of contemporary giants: Lucy Prebble, Lucy Kirkwood and Debbie Tucker Green.”

So Bartlett is not just prolific and brilliant, but also tactful and generous, too, of his contemporaries.

I can’t wait to see both of his new plays.

COVID starts to unravel the Broadway season

Broadway has bounced back this spring; as of today, there should be 31 shows now running, with a slew of productions about to begin previews to join them.

But the dread hand of COVID is already causing havoc once again; previews of HAMLET with Daniel Craig are currently suspended until next Monday (April 11) as he has COVID; last night, Matthew Broderick checked out of the just-opened PLAZA SUITE as he has Covid, too, though his co-star (and wife) Sarah Jessica Parker is currently negative, and was able to go ahead with an understudy; and previews for A STRANGE LOOP have been delayed to now begin tomorrow evening April 7 due to “the detection of a limited number of positive COVID test results within the company and to give the production more time to rehearse the understudies.”

Off-Broadway, tonight’s world premiere opening of a new musical SUFFS will go ahead at the Public, but without its star and writer Shaina Taub; according to a tweet from the theatre,

It is clearly going to be a rollercoaster of a month.


If you can’t wait that long, I can also be found regularly on Twitter here: