David Lister: The Week in Arts

West End goes too far in conning the public
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The Independent Online

When a West End theatre staged an adaptation of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a quote from The Independent was placed prominently outside. "One of the richest experiences of my life," it declared. What the critic wrote was: "Reading this novel as a child was one of the richest experiences of my life. What a tragedy to see it ruined on stage."

That's my favourite example of how theatre producers and marketing companies take quotes out of context. It happened a few years ago, but the practice continues with abandon. This week one newspaper conducted a survey of critics' comments plastered up outside West End theatres for their current productions.

"Perennially popular entertainment," boasts the quote from the Evening Standard for the production of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. Presumably there was insufficient space for the full phrase, which was "perennially popular entertainment now seems to drift rather aimlessly".

Then there's The Observer's review of Sinatra at the London Palladium: "Energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry." The punter can't ask for more than that. However, a closer look at that critic's words reveals that he wrote: "I couldn't help feeling that for all the energy, razzmatazz and technical wizardry, the audience had been shortchanged... It was the longest three hours I have spent in a theatre."

OK, it was ever thus; it's not against the law, and we haven't yet reached the memorable level of Broadway producer David Merrick, nicknamed The Abominable Showman. In 1961 he arranged for seven members of the public who had the same names as New York's theatre critics to give rave reviews to his play. He then printed them in an advertisement.

The general consensus is that it's just a bit of fun. Certainly no one is prepared to take any action. Trading standards officers say the signs do not breach the Trades Descriptions Act. The Advertising Standards Authority says that such quotes are outside its jurisdiction because they are not paid-for advertising. The Society of London Theatre says that it has no code to protect consumers from being misled.

Anthony Pye-Jeary, the managing director of Dewynters, the key marketing company for West End theatre, told The Times, which conducted the survey, that using selective quotations was standard practice. He said: "If the words are in the review, that is invariably fair game. If a show hasn't got any good reviews you put up the best you can from what you've got. That should be obvious. We'd be bonkers to use the negative stuff."

What is obvious is that intelligent people know full well when they are taking a quote staggeringly out of context to give the opposite impression of what was intended. The fact that something is standard practice doesn't make it right. This standard practice, which for so long has been looked on as a bit of fun,is actually quite serious. Consumers are being misled on a daily basis by people who should know better.

Across the arts no practitioners take themselves more seriously or hold themselves in such high esteem as champions of integrity more than the world of theatre. Yet theatre producers are happy to connive in deceiving the public and luring punters into their shows on false pretences.

Of course it is sensible to extract the best quotes possible. But there's a world of difference between doing that and extracting quotes that give the opposite impression from what was intended. It's not a bit of fun. It's sharp practice.

No bus pass for Sir Peter

This week I went to see Sir Peter Hall's enchanting production of the opera A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne. But overseeing this revival is just a fraction of what Sir Peter is doing at the moment. He is also directing three plays at the Theatre Royal in Bath. One of them is Waiting for Godot, whose British premiere he directed 50 years ago. In addition, his production of Noël Coward's Hay Fever starring Judi Dench is the hottest ticket in the West End. That's five Peter Hall productions in the works.

Almost as an aside, he is shortly to open the Rose Theatre in Kingston, fulfilling his dream of running an Elizabethan-style playhouse.

At the age of 75, Sir Peter has quietly become the busiest director in Britain. There are many - too many - awards doled out in the world of theatre. But, there should be a special "keep on keeping on" award created for the man who refuses to retire and keeps ageism in the arts at bay.

* Mr Jonathan Stephens was appointed permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport this week. In a press statement, Mr Stephens said: "I'm thrilled to be joining DCMS. It's a small department but with a big reach - at the heart of all those quality of life issues that bring fulfilment, excitement and interest to millions. And it helps to sponsor some of the biggest industries in Britain, from tourism, to communications, to fashion. All that, and the 2012 Games too. I can't wait to start."

Somehow, these are not the sort of phrases I associate with permanent secretaries. An excited press officer with a train to catch, perhaps. I prefer my permanent secretaries to be aloof and opaque. I can't imagine Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey speaking breathlessly about being "at the heart of all those quality of life issues". And he would never have admitted to being "thrilled".

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