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Michael Coveney: Publish critics and be damned in resurgent Hampstead

By • West End

Matt Trueman wonders out loud in The Stage this week why so few critics have been published in book form, or anthologised. The answer is twofold: there's no readership, and therefore no profit for publishers, in these straitened times; and today's critical writing is not outstanding enough to appeal to the general reader, in the way Kenneth Tynan's was.

In Tynan's case, of course, there was a compelling narrative, as he oscillated between classical hero worship and Marxian analysis, and visibly supervised a cultural transition from old school to new wave, just as Bernard Shaw (in just three scintillating years) had ushered in a new politically conscious social drama - his own included - 60 years beforehand.

And Tynan was a brilliant writer full stop, just as, today, Clive James, A A Gill and Brian Sewell (none of them theatre reviewers) have all been comparably brilliant writers with publishers queuing up to pin them down in hard covers. Most theatre critics operate like late-night customs officers, waving shows through with a limp gesture or two and very occasionally waving one down to take a closer look.  

No-one wants to read a whole bunch of reviews that contain words like "excellent," "impressive," or "disappointing." What you want from a collection is an authoritative long view, a manifesto, a series of volcanic eruptions and lots of good jokes. The nearest we've come to that, as Matt points out, is Michael Billington's One Night Stands two decades ago, and I agree that it's high time he produced a second volume (which, I understand, is on the cards).

Maybe it's a shame that this year's centenary of the Critics' Circle isn't going to be celebrated with a collection of the best we have to offer (the Circle's own publication manages to misspell Ian McKellen and lodge the contentious claim - by his widow - that Sheridan Morley "was better than all of us.")

Too late now, but you could easily have envisaged a series of well-produced pamphlets or short books offering, say, Paul Taylor on Alan Bennett, Simon Gray and the West End play; Aleks Sierz on the death of working class theatre; Susannah Clapp on theatre beyond theatres; Lyn Gardner on children's theatre rules OK; Mark Shenton or Ed Seckerson on his (their?) musical theatre habit, with special reference to Barbara Cook; Irving Wardle on whether or not we should now disband the National and RSC and start again?

Sometimes I use this blog as a critical column supplementary to my reviews, especially when I feel that the review itself may not have done the full job, something I felt about my account of William Boyd's Longing at the Hampstead Theatre last night.

I used my allotted space - although one of the great things about writing for Whatsontage.com is that space is never as regimented as it is in newspapers, for obvious reasons - to try and unravel what Boyd had actually done in dramatising a synthesis of two Chekhov short stories.

That left too little time or words for a description of dramatic flashpoints or details of performance: the transformation of the summer house into a party venue, symbolic of a "corporate" takeover, for instance, or the long slow exhalation that is Tamsin Greig's performance as a country doctor hurtling towards frigidity and loneliness, or the sheer exuberant loveliness of  newcomer Eve Ponsonby's Natasha, hurling herself at Iain Glen's non-committal Moscow lawyer.

(And, incidentally, to save everyone's scratching-of-heads time when confronted with best newcomer categories in awards voting later this year, let's just mark down Ponsonby and, for that matter, Catrin Stewart - who plays Ponsonby's garishly flirtatious counterpart, Kleopatra - right now.)

I spent a few minutes worrying over the refreshingly non-Chekhovian dynamic of the story-telling, and I nearly gasped out loud when it appeared that William Postlethwaite, as a curly-headed spoilt boy who's renounced his own class background and taken to manual labour, nearly slipped off the roof he was painting, holding a hot drink, too. 

Sometimes the exits and entrances are a little over-engineered. But you soon get used to the oddness, summed up in the exasperated jerkiness of John Sessions' contribution as a dyspeptic, well, engineer. And another look at Boyd's script suggests the ending hasn't quite been worked out properly, with a last minute lurch, perhaps, towards underlining the Beatrice and Benedick nature of Greig's and Glen's relationship.

But, as at The Audience, it was a very good first night, with a high level of serious professional interest in the stalls, and not just among the critics: directors Michael Blakemore and Richard Eyre were surely intrigued to see if their Chekhovian repertoire was about to be fruitfully enlarged, while actors Jonathan Pryce, Janet Suzman, Tim Pigott-Smith, Greg Wise and Issy van Randwyck weighed up the new interpretative opportunities now on offer.

Added to which, there was a great buzz about the place, and not just because media legend Janet Street-Porter (whom I'll always treasure for biffing Julie Burchill over an ill-informed response to my Mike Leigh book) and Theo Fennell, jeweller to the stars and silly-rich, were prancing round the foyer. Hampstead Theatre is definitely on a roll.

In sum, it's time to check out the new Chekhov, enjoy the company of a wonderful cast, welcome first-time promising dramatist and superb novelist William Boyd and note the ongoing career of director/writer Nina Raine.   


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