David Lister: The Week in Arts

The dubious art of celebrity casting
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The Independent Online

I accept that I am not the most popular person in the West End this weekend. As I write this, I am assured that the presses are whirring at some expense to reprint pages in programmes for some of the leading West End theatres.

What happened was this. In an attempt to avert my eyes from the depressing things happening on stage at the first night of the celebrity cast As You Like It this week, I decided to study the programme. It struck me that the owners of the Wyndham's Theatre, in which I was sitting, didn't know how to spell it. The Ambassador Theatre Group had given it an apostrophe on the front cover, but no apostrophe in articles inside (including one by the theatre manager) or in the group's advertising, which appears in programmes for all their theatres.

Trivial? I'm sure my old friend Lynne Truss, the nation's apostrophe guru, would agree with me that such things are important. An ATG spokesman said that as the theatre was named after Henry Wyndham it should have an apostrophe, and the inside pages would be reprinted. That was noble of him, and it grieved me to have to point out that the name was therefore spelt incorrectly in ATG adverts in programmes for all the group's theatres. They would all be changed, he growled. It pained me to have to point out further that both the theatre's own website and the ATG website also had it wrong. There would be a thorough corporate review, he barked.

What was happening on stage was even more alarming. As Paul Taylor says in Performance Notes, below, there was some pretty ordinary acting on view. Sienna Miller was far from the worst; but I do think it was wrong of director David Lan, who is head of the Young Vic and co-producer, to cast her. Ms Miller is a not unpromising actress, but she is the girlfriend of the chairman of the Young Vic's development fund. I am not for a moment suggesting that there was anything unethical in Mr Lan's casting. But I do think it was unfair on Ms Miller to put her in a position where questions might be asked.

It was even stranger of Mr Lan and his co-producer, the normally imaginative and adventurous Sonia Friedman, to cast Reece Shearsmith from TV's The League of Gentlemen, and Sean Hughes from the comedy stand-up circuit, in key roles. The reviews were largely severe about their acting and verse speaking.

Celebrity casting is getting weirder. I'm no fan of it, but one can just about understand it if the celebrities involved are big American stars such as David Schwimmer from Friends who is in the West End at the moment. Why, though, cast TV comedians, who are not exactly household names, in Shakespeare plays when there are scores of actors better suited for the roles? I'm hugely sceptical of any claims that it brings in a new audience. Please, Mr Lan and Ms Friedman, send me the audience research that shows that people who would not normally come have come to see these TV comics and that they now intend to see more theatre.

Perhaps, after some of this week's reviews, theatre producers and directors will think again about where we are going and what we are achieving with celebrity casting. If that rethink happens, and at the same time theatre owners learn how to spell the names of their famous buildings, it will be a worthwhile double whammy.

Emily's theory of relativity

Those who failed to get tickets for Glastonbury this weekend may be interested in an interview in the NME with Emily Eavis, the daughter of Glastonbury supremo Michael Eavis.

Emily, right, with her father, says that at this time of year, relatives of the Eavis family multiply. She adds that even while she is speaking to the NME, there is an uncle waiting downstairs for his ticket. "The Eavis family is quite big," she confesses, and she looks after the family tickets. How is a girl to remember all her uncles, aunts and cousins? Her routine is to question alleged relatives about when they last met and to ask them to give details about her house.

So there we are. Next Glastonbury, nip down to Somerset a few weeks before the festival, pat Emily on the head and say: "I'm your uncle. My, haven't you grown. You were just a toddler last time I saw you. Ah, I see that you have had the front room painted since I was last here. Two access-all-areas tickets will be fine."