First Night: Exit in confusion as critics savage plays directed by the critics

First Night: The Critics - Up For Review BAC, London

Many an actor would have relished the spectacle. Four national theatre critics lost their virginity all too publicly last night, crossing the footlights to direct plays.

It led to strange sights. These same critics vigorously leading the applause at the end, while in their day job they scamper away as the curtain falls.

Contrary to the expectation of some, they did not disgrace themselves. In the main house, Michael Billington of the Guardian coaxed considerable comedy out of Pinter's sexually tantalising two-hander The Lover, and Nicholas De Jongh of the Evening Standard boldly directed a large cast in a haunting rendition of Anouilh's The Traveller Without Luggage.

But the spectacle that actors will love is that of the critics falling out, perhaps permanently. The Observer's Michael Coveney labelled the exercise as "amateur" and refused to review it. Mr De Jongh in strangely schizophrenic vein echoed the view of many a director when he said after the show last night: "Michael Billington and I agree that the only people who have treated this interesting experiment with inaccurate sneering malignity are theatre critics. I always had a suspicion that they are not a very generous or nice group of people, and this has confirmed it."

Jeremy Kingston of the Times and James Christopher, a freelance critic, completed the quartet of directorial debuts.

The experiment by the Battersea Arts Centre, a leading London fringe venue, has drawn huge media attention, attracted celebrity reviewers, and will be made into the stuff of a BBC television documentary.

Announcing the project, Lawrence Elman, co-producer of the pounds 40,000 season, said: "I believe critics see more theatre than anyone else, which leads me to feel that these four shows will be of the highest quality seen for a long time."

That is luvvie logic of a high order. By the same thinking we can look forward to a season of the same critics playing in Hamlet or Run For Your Wife; of music critics conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; of education correspondents teaching the sixth form, and political editors taking it in turns to run the country.

Despite the publicity, ticket sales have not exactly been brisk. Odd as it may seem, the theatre-going public seems unclear why it should pay money to see plays directed by people who have never directed before.

And the would-be directors have also attracted more than their fair share of flak. Jane Edwardes, theatre editor of the London listings magazine Time Out, said: "If critics were really interested in learning how to direct, they would be quietly taking themselves off to do a course. Instead, they are taking up space at BAC, denying the opportunity to people who have determined to make a career as a director."

Director Malachi Bogdanov, whose adaptation of Huxley's Brave New World opens at the Cochrane Theatre in London this week, agreed: "It's utterly frustrating. We have to book a theatre six months in advance, then they pull a stunt like this and it takes other critics away from coming to see our show."

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