David Lister: The Week in Arts

To whoop or not to whoop: that is the question
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The Independent Online

Strange things have been happening at the theatre, though not actually on stage. And this is reflected in an intriguing new practice of reviewing the audience. Theatregoers as well as actors and directors have been featuring in recent reviews by the critics. The play in question is David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross in the West End of London. At least two critics have commented at length on the fact that this play about the excesses used by real-estate salesmen in America has been attracting groups of estate agents to the London revival.

That's good news for the box office, of course, but apparently not such good news for the non-estate agents in the audience. It appears that some of these parties of estate agents (a disturbing image, I agree) have visited the pub en route to the auditorium and, full of the joys of theatre, whoop it up during the play, apparently under the misapprehension that Mamet's work is a celebration of the art of house-selling rather than an examination of its pressures, excesses and dubious practices.

I have my own "audience review" to add to this after visiting another theatre in the West End. I went to see the first anniversary performance of the revival of Cabaret, the excellent production from Bill Kenwright, directed by Rufus Norris. This dark and often deliberately sleazy version is very different from the Liza Minnelli movie, and does not fail to send shivers down my spine with its sense of impending menace. If it is a comedy, it is an extremely dark one in this production. Yet when I revisited it a few days ago, there was irritatingly raucous laughter from one section of the audience.

Why? Well, the answer is Julian Clary. A recent cast change has seen the camp TV comedian take over as the MC of the decadent Weimar Republic nightclub. Mr Clary's performance is fine, but his name has clearly attracted his fans, and they equally clearly expect to see his usual persona, and laugh themselves silly each time he comes on stage. It doesn't help the texture of this production, to put it mildly, though it is a tribute to it that by the second half the Clary fan club got the point, and the laughter had died down. Estate agents are made of sterner stuff, and I gather from those who have seen Glengarry Glen Ross recently that the whooping continues to the end.

I admit that I'm not sure what the reaction to any of this should be. On the one hand I'm rather impressed that there is an unofficial estate agents' network that discusses theatre and has passed on the recommendation to its members to see Glengarry Glen Ross. Such word-of-mouth encouragement to see first-class plays should not be scorned. Equally, the point of casting a TV personality like Julian Clary is presumably to bring in his public, and guide a largely TV audience towards the theatre. So, that has worked too.

And it would be pompous (if not downright dangerous) to tap the whoopers and laughers on the shoulder and point out that the play they are watching is not slapstick or celebration. They pays their money, they can laugh and whoop as they wish. But it's distracting; it's inappropriate and it does detract from the general enjoyment. I'd be curious to hear what Cabaret director Rufus Norris thinks about it, likewise David Mamet.

The MC in Cabaret says: "In here life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful."

And, of course, the audience is beautiful.

Redford's sheepish response

Lions for Lambs, the new film directed by and starring Robert Redford, pictured, takes its title from the famous comment about the difference between First World War soldiers and their generals. Only it gets it wrong. The phrase was, of course, "lions led by donkeys". Lambs don't come into it.

When Andrew Marr gently pointed out in a TV interview that the correct word is not lambs, Redford gasped: "Isn't it? Oh! You'd better take it up with the writer."

I'm not sure that the film's director and star, a man with a strong interest in war, history and culture, can be allowed to pass the buck that easily. I find it absolutely amazing that in all the months taken shooting, producing and distributing the film, nobody in the crew or cast had the courage to whisper to Redford that the title was incorrect. Was it never the subject of a conversation in the studio canteen? A word in his ear might have saved Redford a lot of embarrassment later, poor lamb.

* I once spent an afternoon with Elvis Costello, and found him to be an unusually charming, polite and thoughtful rock star. So I was taken aback this week by the bitterness of his invective against Britain, his insistence that he would never return here from his present home in America, and his accusation that fans and critics here are ageist about music and bands.

I didn't see much evidence of this prejudice at the Ray Davies concert I attended the other week. The age demographic for the former leader of the Kinks was wide, and the critics were unanimous in their rave reviews. The reunion of Led Zeppelin hasn't exactly received a bad or indifferent press. Every Bob Dylan concert I attend has a large percentage of students in the audience. I don't recognise the country, the fans or the critics that Costello derides. Come back, Elvis. It must have been a bad dream.

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