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Critics create a stink over Young's 'sewage works' of a comedy

On The Press: When one of their own turns playwright, the fur will fly

"Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp post how it feels about dogs," said the playwright Christopher Hampton. The considerably inferior Toby Young could be forgiven for taking a similar view at the end of a week in which the first night of his latest play (co-written with Lloyd Evans) was staged, although he does have the problem that he is a critic as well as a playwright. Or a lamp post as well as a dog. He shares the role of theatre critic of The Spectator with Lloyd Evans.

It is a while since so much bile was poured on one not very significant opening by such a unanimous bunch of critics. Is it because they resent Young being on both sides of the fence while they mostly stick to the offstage side of the relationship?

Whatever the reason - and it could simply be that A Right Royal Farce is quite exceptionally bad - the scribes in the stalls were savage after watching the first night at the King's Head in north London last Monday. The play purports to be a satire on the succession to the throne following the death of the Queen, featuring the sexual antics of various members of the Royal Family.

"To call it a stinker does not do it justice," wrote Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. "It's smellier than that sewage works next to the M4 near Heathrow." Robert Hanks in The Independent wrote of the "extraordinary feebleness of this comedy". Nicholas de Jongh said in the Evening Standard that "only people with an appetite for rank theatrical rubbish will want to gorge themselves on this relentlessly boring little farce".

The Guardian's Michael Bill-ington said that "even to summarise the inane plot requires a heroic act of will", while Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph thought the play "both tasteless and timid and "almost entirely devoid of laughs".

It seems that the play did not go down well with the critics. This band of specialist writers, who rarely enter the offices of the newspapers for which they write, tend to be individualists, possibly because they meet their colleagues and rivals only in the half-light. They seek respect, but only of those they respect - certainly not of writers of what they think of as bad plays.

These critics - some doing their jobs for decades - do not lack self-esteem but do not seek celebrity. Is this where Toby Young went wrong? He has practised self-promotion and enjoyed celebrity since his earliest days, founding The Modern Review with Julie Burchill and then exchanging public insults with her over the years.

The saga of A Right Royal Farce illustrates the application of playing the media to advantage. In June, Young was writing in The Observer about the "extremely remote" chance of the play ever being put on. Legal worries would discourage potential producers, and actors would not jeopardise their prospects of an OBE by being cast in such a play.

Publicity having been gained for the play by condemning those who would never produce it, a producer duly emerged. Last Sunday, Young and Evans occupied the How We Met slot in this newspaper, talking about each other and their play, which was opening the following night. "It's terrifying for a theatre critic to put on a play that theatre critics will come to watch," said Young, "and, of course, to criticise. For that reason both Lloyd and myself have very low expectations for A Right Royal Farce."

Having shamelessly exploited the well-known technique of reducing expectations to a level where they were likely to be exceeded, and generated some advance publicity for the first night, the authors then had the shock of finding that their very low expectations were not achieved.

Nothing for it but to accept the Daily Mail's invitation, and fee, to fill a full page under the headline "The biter bit! This theatre critic has just had his new play panned by every critic in Britain. So how does it feel, Toby?" Thus the paper that carried the "smellier than sewage" review gave the author four times as many words to muse about what went wrong and fantasise about taking the play to Broadway. Still, there were the useful italics at the bottom of the piece: "A Right Royal Farce is at the King's Head until 27 August".

That should provide time for The Spectator to review it. Although they have two theatre critics, Toby Young and Lloyd Evans, the weekly did not carry a review from the King's Head. Evans was on reviewing duty elsewhere. Clearly nobody could be found to review his play.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield