Michael Coveney: Arthur Smith flays critics at the friendly Circle awardsDate: 16 January 2013
"Hello, Benedict," said Arthur Smith, shaking me warmly by the hand. As I'd brushed my hair, and my teeth, it was slightly galling to be mistaken for the walrus-moustached (with food attached) former sage Nightingale of The Times.
Arthur launched into his annual "hooray for critics" schtick with a stream of blue jokes and four-letter words aimed specifically, it seemed, at Libby Purves in the front row. And he noted Michael Billington's OBE as a just reward for years of establishment fawning and general bum-sucking. "I hear Laurence Olivier's died, then," he suddenly ejaculated.
You can't say Arthur's not up to speed on the West End scene. He correctly identified 50 per cent of last year's productions as Uncle Vanya, while revealing that the cast of Viva Forever! were starting to rehearse a re-written version of the show called Long Day's Journey Into Night.
"Anyone here called Tim Walker?" he asked, referring to the critic on the Sunday Telegraph who occasionally refers to himself in the third person in his Daily Telegraph diary column. No reply. "Your friends have been coming up to me saying you're a wanker." Oh dear. Funny, though. Neither Tim nor Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail wants to join the Critics' Circle - feeling apart from it, or above it, or too "proper journalist" about it, I don't know - but I think they should, if only to come along once a year for Smith's stand-up.
His heartfelt appreciation of our trade was taken up by Dominic Dromgoole, accepting a special award for the Globe to Globe season, who said that 20 years of charm and civility lavished on critics had obviously paid off at last. And David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, winner of three awards, said that he knew how exceptional was Benedict Andrews' production of Three Sisters, but admitted that he was frankly surprised that we did, too.
As usual, the speeches by both award-winners and the critics giving them were a cut above those at most awards ceremonies. Susannah Clapp described how Denise Gough, most promising newcomer in Desire Under the Elms, had crept into her consciousness (Gough gracefully responded by saying that, although she'd been around for ten years, this performance felt like a new start); and Michael Billington applauded the tightrope walking act of Adrian Lester, best actor in Red Velvet, between modern realism and 19th century artificial style (Lester said he read all the reviews, of his and other people's work, all the time).
Kate Bassett, announcing Merrily We Roll Along as best musical (we seem to have given up on best new musical; Sweet Smell of Success would have fitted that bill nicely) appropriately spoke backwards, while director Maria Friedman admitted that, until she had directed this show, she had been feeling distinctly ambivalent about acting; now she loved the job. And Merrily is due in the West End after an extension at the Menier if they can raise the rest of the money.
Henry Hitchings lauded both the intelligence and the feeling behind Lucy Prebble's best new play, The Effect, and Lucy paid a surprise tribute to critics who discuss their own failings and illnesses in a review (not sure about that): "That is how you reach audiences, as a writer, or a critic; you write with authority when you write from your wounds."
The Critics' Circle awards have their origins in the annual Plays and Players awards, when the votes of each critic were published in the January issue. The first ever drinks and nibbles ceremony was held in the Royal Court's dress circle bar in 1978, and it's a very good thing that the informality and light-heartedness of that first lunchtime gathering is continued to this day.
The "staging" of the event at the Prince of Wales was impeccable (thanks due to all staff led by Richard Johnson and Billy Differ of Delfont Mackintosh) and the canapes superb, and chairman Mark Shenton's hosting swift and to the point.
I agreed with the best production and design awards, otherwise my nominations were: In the Republic of Happiness (best play); Sweet Smell of Success (best musical); Pip Carter in Dark Earth, Light Sky (best actor); Cate Blanchett in Big and Small (best actress); Harriet Walter as Brutus (best Shakespearean performance); Hayley Squires for Vera Vera Vera (most promising playwright); and Emily Barber in Cornelius at the Finborough (most promising newcomer).