West End critics enter the theatre of war

A new generation of reviewers is queuing up to replace the ageing elite who dominate the scene. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Culture

Nicholas de Jongh's criticisms of one Shakespearean actor were so incendiary that the actor made a death threat against the critic from the London Evening Standard.

Nicholas de Jongh's criticisms of one Shakespearean actor were so incendiary that the actor made a death threat against the critic from the London Evening Standard.

Phil Setren, a young playwright, was so outraged by the verdict of The Independent on Sunday's Kate Bassett that he drew her picture on his kitchen floor and concreted it over.

But if the emotions of those on the receiving end of withering reviews are understandable, they are nothing compared with the occasional outburst of anger between the wordsmiths themselves.

In a world where the veteran Sheridan Morley was sacked from The Spectator to make way for Toby Young, a younger friend of the editor's, and Quentin Letts, the Daily Mail's political sketch writer, was the surprise successor to Michael Coveney, the latest kerfuffle among the theatre fraternity is the suggestion that many critics are, quite simply, too old.

Ian Shuttleworth, the editor of the bi-weekly title Theatre Record, has raised the "serious problem" that the continued employment of long-established writers such as Michael Billington on The Guardian and Benedict Nightingale on The Times is creating a log-jam of thwarted younger talent.

"Room is simply not being made for the next generation to come through, in a way that did happen more often for our predecessors," Shuttleworth wrote in his latest editorial. "There's a risk that my generation will come to look like Prince Charles, too old and generally too shop-soiled to be seen as palatable successors to our respective thrones when they become available."

It was an argument that left the venerable Billington bemused yesterday. "Age is, in many ways, an advantage, because the wider your experience of theatre, I suppose, the easier it becomes to judge what you see in front of you," the 65-year-old critic said.

Despite reviewing for The Guardian since 1971, he insisted he was actually still learning. "I feel constantly refreshed by the changing nature of theatre. It isn't static, it's always shifting in relation to society, therefore the job is a different job now from what it was when I started.

"At the moment I don't feel any incentive to stop. There's always something around the corner I would not hate not writing about. Who would want to miss Michael Gambon's Falstaff or Guys and Dolls coming back into the West End?"

Paul Taylor, The Independent's critic since 1990, turns 50 this year, along with Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph and Alastair Macaulay of the Financial Times, and points out that the acclaimed American film critic Pauline Kael was exactly that age when she started at The New Yorker. "I would say that 50 is a very good age," she said. "But it all depends. Some people have authority in their twenties and some haven't achieved it by their fifties. Irving Wardle [formerly of The Times and The Independent on Sunday] was a great deal better in his sixties than most people are in their thirties. He was wonderful."

De Jongh, who declined to give his age but has been the Evening Standard's main critic for 13 years, said he sympathised with Ian Shuttleworth but the situation was not new. W A Darlington was the critic for The Daily Telegraph from 1920 to 1968 while Milton Shulman delivered his verdicts from 1953 to 1991, De Jongh said. "I think theatre critics have always tended to be middle-aged."

"I'm not going to say I'm a better critic because I've seen 15 or 20 King Lears. That's a ridiculous argument. But I certainly think you see some ludicrous reviews from people who have only seen Lear once."

Besides, all the older hands agreed, the assumption of a lack of mobility among the critics was questionable. Younger critics, often women, were now writing for all the national titles, from Georgina Brown at The Mail on Sunday to Bassett at The Independent on Sunday and Victoria Segal at The Sunday Times.

"Obviously it was insane that criticism was once a male-dominated profession," Billington said. "The response to plays can be governed by gender so it is sensible to have some kind of balance present."

Bassett, who is 38, agreed reviews did, occasionally, split down gender lines whereas the divisions over age were less clear-cut. Boy Gets Girl, a play about a stalker at the Royal Court, had disturbed the female critics more than the men, for instance.

However, she did agree with Shuttleworth over another, potentially more serious issue - celebrity hirings. "Appointments to major theatre review seats in the past year or so have included an eclipsed politico [Michael Portillo at the New Statesman], a parliamentary sketch writer [Quentin Letts] and an Oxford chum of the editor [Toby Young]. What these three have in common is not a keen theatrical insight, but that they are names to entice their respective organs' readership," Shuttleworth complained.

Bassett said the trend towards employing "celebrity names who don't actually know much about theatre" was worrying. "I thought Toby Young's initial articles were rather shockingly ill-informed. If something looks like a radical experiment but it isn't, it's quite handy to know that. A lot of people don't read theatre reviews, but the people who do actually want to know what's good."

But Young himself, at 41, explained that Boris Johnson chose him precisely because he was "an amateur and a sceptic", the kind of person the Spectator readership would want to read.

In the three and a half years he has written on theatre, he has been seduced by it but remains unconvinced by the critics. "I think they're a very odd bunch. They're odd in the same sense that Oxford and Cambridge dons are odd. They dress very eccentrically, they're often rather socially retarded and they often have poor personal-hygiene habits. That sounds ruder than I meant it to be," he said.

"I think the reason why the first-string critics remain in situ for so long is because the editors of the papers they work for don't themselves ever go to the theatre and therefore never read them," he added.

He challenged the assumption that a great deal of professional expertise was required. "It's not clear what qualifications you have to have other than good taste. It doesn't matter how many books you've read or how many plays you've seen, it's whether or not your taste is good or bad."

What is perhaps surprising is that so many people want to do the job. Most critics see three or four plays a week though Bassett admits she sometimes did up to six in a previous post. They largely agree that it is "unhealthy" to do too many - particularly for those producing overnight reviews for the following day's paper which may leave them with virtually no time at all to file their copy after a long Shakespearean tragedy.

Billington points out he has not been to a Tuesday night dinner party in years and that his life revolves around the afternoons and weekends. "It plays havoc with a regular social life," he said.

De Jongh went further: "I do think it's a job for a madman, although some flourish. I don't have any intention of carrying on for a very long time and I have no idea whether Shuttleworth would get my job. But I do think there would be a hell of a lot of contenders. It's an addictive process, going to first nights and being there to spread the news."

The routine of several productions a week means the major critics operate in what is a kind of portable club which is fairly friendly in the view of all but Young. Petty rows occasionally flare, insiders suggest, prompted by intellectual sparring or even drink. In general, critics try not to discuss works among themselves to keep their own thinking clear, though sometimes animated debates break out.

They are united, Bassett said, by their serious love of theatre. Although actors and directors might beg to differ, she insisted they would all much rather be positive than not. "We're there every night and we desperately want to like what we see." Having previously worked as an assistant director at the National Theatre and the Royal Court, she tries to avoid productions involving people she knows although that is not always possible. "You try to be objective. Most artists are incredibly generous about it."

Taylor thought it ironic that the subject had arisen now. "This is coming out at a time when the Royal Shakespeare Company has just opened A New Way to Please You which is about the terrible effects of the cull of the elderly."

Even more intriguing is the National Theatre's forthcoming production, Theatre of Blood by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott, in which an actor, frenzied by a lifetime of sneering reviews, invites seven self-regarding critics to join him and a gang of murderous tramps at a disused theatre. Bassett claims to be looking forward to it ...

KENNETH TYNAN: As famous as the plays he reviewed

The first person to utter the f-word on British television, Tynan was one of the most flamboyant, entertaining and influential critics of the 1950s and 60s. His fame was such that his life story itself ended up on stage in a recent Royal Shakespeare Company show based on his diaries and starring Corin Redgrave.

Although he could be disparaging about his art, describing a critic as "a man who knows the way but can't drive the car", he was so talented that he could create almost as much of a stir as the works he was reviewing.

His enthusiastic support in The Observer of ground-breaking new works, such as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger confirmed the importance of the new generation of kitchen-sink drama even though he himself was always a more dandy than angry young man. He also championed writers such as Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett and idolised actors such as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson.

But after Olivier made him the literary manager of the National Theatre in 1963, his influence diminished. His diaries revealed him to be a melancholic egotist who could be bitterly witty in anecdotes of stars of stage and screen and shocking in his descriptions of his sadomasochistic proclivities. He died in 1980 at the age of 53.

FRANK RICH: The butcher of Broadway who could make or break a play

Frank Rich, one of America's most respected commentators, was known as "the butcher of Broadway" during the 1980s for his acerbic theatre reviews for The New York Times .

The title was bestowed upon him by Rowan Atkinson who experienced at first hand how the legendary critic was able to make or break new productions.

The Broadway show in question - Atkinson at the Atkinson - was dismissed by Mr Rich as predictable and badly performed. His conclusion? "The molding of English and American cultures is not yet complete." The show closed after only 14 performances.

Other productions to experience the sharp end of Rich's insightful wit included Moose Murders , a whodunnit play that appeared on Broadway in February 1983

Rich's review apparently served only to seal the play's fate as the most notorious flop in the history of Broadway.

In Rich's words: "Those of us who witnessed it will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic ."

Time appears to have done little to mellow Rich, who has clearly perfected the art of knowing how to hit where it hurts.

When he had the temerity to question the religious politics of Mel Gibson's controversial oeuvre The Passion of the Christ , he found himself at the receiving end of a particularly un-Christian attack. "I want to kill him," said Gibson. "I want his intestines on a stick ... I want to kill his dog."

MILTON SHULMAN: A rule-breaker who disdained the scholars and broke the rules

The longest-serving drama critic of his generation, Milton Shulman covered first nights for the London Evening Standard from 1953 to 1991 and was a loud and familiar figure to actors and audiences alike.

Born in Toronto to Jewish emigrants from Ukraine, he became a film critic after the Second World War, first for Lord Beaverbrook's Express newspapers, where he was categorised alongside writers such as Bernard Levin and Herbert Kretzmer as "one of the kosher butchers". He was 40 when he turned to writing about theatre for the Evening Standard .

Disdaining scholars, he prided himself on writing for the reader in the street. He condemned a play such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as "another of those plays that tries to lift superficiality to significance through obscurity" and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey as "about as true to Lancashire as anything ever written by Ivor Novello about Ruritania".

He took to deliberately breaking the critics' rule of not naming the perpetrator in whodunnits after becoming increasingly frustrated at dire productions of murder mysteries.

Although his career as a theatre critic ended in 1991, he continued to write a column on arts matters until he was 83. He died last year aged 90.