London theatre critics take a panning

Sunday 24 June 2007

Many thanks to Would-Be Whinger M/N for drawing our attention to AA Gill’s article in today’s Sunday Times which lays into theatre critics accusing them of being dull, witless and irrelevant to real theatre-goers.

The biggest surprise of the entire experience was finding out that M/N buys a newspaper but it turns out he is forced to kill time at the weekends as he only has access to Facebook at work. Anyway…

Gill’s thesis seems to be that the first duty of a theatre critic is to write entertainingly…

Tynan wrote: “Critics are consumers of one art, drama, and producers of another, criticism. What counts is not their opinion, but the art with which it is expressed.

…and that the second is to be able to recognise new talent when they see it and that the current bunch aren’t up to it.

As far as the Whingers are concerned this is where his argument falls apart at the seams, backed up as it is with plaudits for the critics of yesteryear perceptive enough to spot the brilliance of new writers Samuel Beckett, John Osborne and Harold Pinter. Actually, based on our recent experiences of these writers, we see this more of an indictment than anything else.

As usual with AA Gill, it all makes for delicious reading (he is, after all, himself an exponent of the form of criticism which values the critic’s entertainment value above his topic) and no doubt Mr Eldridge will be especially gratified at the pop at his personal Moriarty Quentin Letts:

“Sweet, clever Connie [Fisher, as Maria] knocked ’em flying. Viewers of Britain, you chose well. She’s as natural and unsugared and wholesome as one of those pots of vegan yoghurt. Just listening to her makes you feel healthy.” Quentin Letts, Daily Mail.

Can you imagine Kenneth Tynan or Bernard Levin writing this? Or George Bernard Shaw?

Gill posits that:

The critics’ experience rarely seems to coincide with the lives of those sitting with them in the dark. Their dry litany is combined with a Uriah Heepish sycophancy for actors, directors and producers, an awkward, unctuous sucking-up. It’s not that they’re corrupt, but, as Hilaire Belloc said, there’s no need when you see what they’ll do unbribed. Critics are culture’s traffic wardens.

He argues that:

The incremental improvement in the quality and sophistication and enjoyment of eating, cooking and buying food has coincided with the rise of good, angry, witty, opinionated writing.

Mmm. Well maybe. Or maybe the art form attracts the critics it deserves.

Just for good measure he asks an anonymous producer “how important the critics are to his (not Sonia then. Bill?) business”:

“Ten years ago, very. Some could make a show or seriously cripple it. Now, not much. We still get the quotes for the posters, but it’s really only a habit. There certainly isn’t any one critic that theatregoers or people in the business have to read. There’s nobody like Frank Rich was on Broadway, or Tynan or Levin here. I can’t think of a single one whose reports would make someone go to the theatre for the first time. It’s sad, really. They’re sad, really.”

Anyway, it has given the Whingers a marvellous idea. They are going to stop reviewing shows and start reviewing reviews instead and then they can continue to amuse themselves without the inconvenience of having to go to the theatre.

Read the full AA Gill article here.

23 Responses to “London theatre critics take a panning”

  1. jmc Says:

    “As far as the Whingers are concerned this is where his argument falls apart at the seams, backed up as it is (in the print version only) with plaudits for the critics of yesteryear perceptive enough to spot the brilliance of new writers Samuel Beckett, John Osborne and Harold Pinter. Actually, based on our recent experiences of these writers, we see this more of an indictment than anything else.”

    I do like to see an opinion which dares to diverge in a radical way from the view. I used to idly wonder whether the critics hadn’t got it badly wrong when they praised Look Back in Anger, tipping British Theatre down a 50 year blind alley…

  2. Absolutely, JMC. But who dares say so? Only those of us with nothing to lose.

  3. jmc Says:

    Thanks for pointing our way to the Gill piece, btw. It’s the most fun I’ve had reading in yonks.

  4. Yes, thanks for the link. The thing about the urgent scuttle for the doors at the end of the evening made me laugh; I know they have copy to file, but if something has moved and elated you, has given you pleasure, even in part, how can you not clap? I’ve never understood this.

  5. I thought the article was a bit of a nonsense really – yes the critics lack an entertaining style of writing – but that’s what we come to you guys for. If media critics are given an agenda to be entertaining then it’s often at the expense of a fair review – those wonderful turns of phrases will make you smile, but are they there because they reflect the production or because it was too good a line not to use?

    I also think the comparison with food critics is also pretty poor. Personally I can’t stand all the deep analysis of flavour combinations and the kind of cooking it encourages – since when is it acceptable to serve “foam” on a plate? Food critics are way worse than theatre critics, although neither of them come close to ‘wine experts’. I’m trusting here that the Whingers, while liking a glass or six, don’t go in for all the “hint of nettle with an undertone of bootlace” rubbish.

    As for reviewing the critics – I think there are plenty of blog sites out there that have that well covered, and if you’re going to start doing reviews of online reviewers, please leave View From The Stalls well alone.

  6. @Interval Drinks – I agree. Clapping is just good manners, that’s all. Not clapping should generally be reserved for things that are utterly irredeemable and where NOBODY did a good job. Resurrection Blues springs to mind.

    @View from the Stalls –

    re: our approach to wine selection: you’re absolutely right. we always opt for the second cheapest on the wine list

    re: revewing the critics: well, we were just thinking about reviewing the mainstream critics, but you’ve given us an idea now…

  7. JMC & Andrew – The truth is only a couple of critics inlcluding Tynan liked Look Back in Anger and as you well know JMC the rest of the pack at the time had no time for it. What you say is an interesting revisionist provocation but whatever Osborne’s flaws both as a play-maker and as a person I think we owe him a great deal.

    Without Osborne, Wesker and the rest do you really think your hero Bond’s play Saved would have been welcomed JMC without others blazing the trail? Or others you and I admire too like Barker and Rudkin

    Theatre and play forms evolve and become more sophisticated until they either become ironic or decadent. I always think of the revenge tragedy form. You start with the fairly unsophisticated Spanish Tragedy, you move on to Hamlet which isn’t a bad play (!) and you end up with Revenger’s Tragedy mocking the form itself. That’s a formal journey over twenty years in itself.

    At’s easy to take a pot shot at Osborne and his flawed Anger to account for your unhappiness with the theatre as it is JMC and largely how it has been in the last fifty years. But I would say that while most people would agree that the late-80’s and early-90’s weren’t great for new playwriting most would disagree with you summarily writing off 50 years of British Theatre.

    And however mindless reviews can be from time to time the facts are that the critics aren’t responsible for all that history. Actually when anything important happened many seemed to miss the boat at the time…

    Sorry Whingers I meant to make a little comment and ended up writing the Honorary Billington school essay. It’s Rascal you see – he’s warned me about sounding off to much on my own blog these days… Please forgive me barking so loudly JMC 😉

  8. Oh, you can always count on that Mr Eldridge to raise the tone of a debate, can’t you? What a spoilsport.
    The Whingers have no minds of their own and are always persuaded by the last arguement put to them so we agree with you DE although we still don’t much care for Beckett, Osborne and especially Pinter being revived. Enough already!
    @Rascal: Woof! Don’t you just want him sometimes to say Woof!? 🙂

  9. Helen Smith Says:

    Oh crikey, I popped over here to leave a comment suggesting that Lyn Gardner’s assertion that the Whingers are ‘brilliantly funny’ was her way of angling for a part in the musical I am writing about the them – to be directed (schedule permitting) by Matthew Warchus – and to ask whether you felt that Elaine Paige would want to play Lyn.
    But I see that I’m in danger of lowering the tone.

  10. Congrats – a certain Mark Pearce has sung your praises in the online version of that story, along with those of City Slicker and Interval Drinks.

    Here! Here! And cheers! You certainly know how to make reading a review entertaining.

  11. jmc Says:

    “What you say is an interesting revisionist provocation” – yes David, that’s all it was meant to be. But it is sometimes useful to question orthodoxy. “Could it be that the constant negativity and relentless realism of the last 50 years have done damage to the British imagination” I ask myself, in idle moments. It’s possible, innit? Yes, it is possible to trace a line from Anger to Saved to Barker et al, but might we have got more interesting lines in an alternative history scenario? Also, I think it’s Dan Rebellato’s 1956 and All That which suggests that a certain homophobia lay at the heart of the Court aesthetic.

    Seriously, I think Osborne made a huge contribution, but I think we mustn’t get stuck in the paradigm he created. I think there was much which was melodramatic, much boorishness, much machismo posturing and much adolescent angst in Anger, as well as much good. And a good deal of those things have bled through the past 40 years, in drama as well as criticism. There’s been a lot of emphasis placed on a rhetorical approach which hasn’t always led to stuff which is very enlightening. The thing about Sacred Cows is they can be pretty bovine about moving out of the way sometimes…

  12. Sean Says:

    I agree with Mr Eldridge, especially ‘the critics aren’t responsible for all that history’. Certainly the critics have not been the key movers in changing drama over the past 50 years, and Gill gives them too much prominence (well, he is a critic).

    God, it’s 4.30am and I have to be at the Chelsea Westminster Hospital by 3pm, so I should go to bed! I’ve written a longish rant on my blog about AA Gill’s comments. Do have a look!

  13. Thanks all for the lively debate. Having weighed up all the factors and all things considered, here’s our favourite.

  14. Fair enough JMC – the rhetoric is dull as dishwater and the Monsterists have campaigned against such things!

    Hey Andrew – Woof!

  15. @ DE
    Just so we can be crystal clear.
    The policy of this blog is that intellectual comments will not be published.
    We do not give two hoots if this seems unfair on:
    Theatre lovers.
    “Artistic” directors.
    Theatre bar staff.
    Or anyone else we choose to lampoon on the odd occasion.
    In fact regular readers will know vacuity, triviality and mean-spiritedness are actively encouraged.
    Don’t like this.
    Don’t read our blog.
    Don’t bother to post comments.
    Don’t come back.
    @ Rascal: Woof woof

  16. Colonel 2Cleverby-Half (retired) Says:

    As a new poster wishing to make an impact, I really must take considerable issue with you over your ill-informed criticism of AA Gill, previously known best for his media-friendly cultivation of Borat-style entente cordiale with the Welsh.

    For goodness sake, if you really feel impelled to fill cyberspace with your inane whinging and criticise the critics, at least pick on the right things to criticise and, especially in view of Mr Gill’s well-known propensity to argue, impossible to refute. Mr Gill is wrong, wrong, totally wrong! It was Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940) who wrote:

    You cannot hope
    to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the
    British journalist.
    But, seeing what
    the man will do
    unbribed, there’s
    no occasion to.

    And not Hilaire Belloc who wrote “Jim who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion”, “Mathilda told such dreadful lies” etc

    Wolfe also managed the considerable feat of composing a pithy poem using a grey squirrel to criticise religious hypocrisy but never, as I recall, a poem on critics or whinging internet bloggers which some might consider a sad omission. But others, especially here in Tunbridge Wells, might not.

    Hwyl !

  17. Helen Smith Says:

    So anyway – about Elaine Paige playing Lyn?

  18. @ Helen Smith

    Hmmm. It’s not a comedy you’re writing then?

    Can we go for Ute Lemper or Ruthie Henshall or Megan Mullaly or Harriet Harris?

    Would you mind?

  19. J.A. Says:

    On the subject of facebook perhaps you could do an article on the various performers who can be found there. Emma Williams and Alexandra Silber spring to mind.

  20. Exactly – Belloc, bollocks! And the rest of Gill’s article is every bit as accurate and insightful as that.

    The best riposte to it I’ve seen is on British Theatre Guide.

    As for John Osborne, I try never to miss a re-run of “Flash Gordon” so I can watch him being solemn in a green frock as the high priest while Peter Duncan thrusts his arm into a poisonous gourd. Yes, I promise you, it really is him.

  21. Bis Says:

    Why has no-one pointed out that the same section of last weeks Sunday Times got rather confused between a Sondheim review and The Pain and the Itch ?

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