Emerging from the National after seeing Theatre of Blood - a good old-fashioned bit of entertaining shlock-horror about a bunch of drama critics meeting their end at the hands of a disaffected actor-manager who feels he has been robbed of his due credit (and the 1972 Critics' Circle Award for Best Shakespearean Performance) by them - I couldn't help but look over my shoulder. Would Kevin Spacey be lurking in The Cut on my way home, ready to slice my throat after my recent run of reviews of his shows at the Old Vic?
Or - given the methods that Edward Lionheart gleefully employs here to dispatch his detractors, re-playing Shakespearean death scenes on the critics he has assembled at a crumbling derelict theatre - would I be slapped in the face by the tassels hanging from Miss Immodesty Blaize's fulsome breasts until I suffocated in her dreadful Burlesque show at the Arts? Or would I simply be bored to death by being made to watch Patti Boulaye's Sun Dance again?
I gave those shows the kind of reviews that Lionheart might say warrant an immediate death sentence. He himself has collected sheafs of his own worst reviews that he quotes back to the critics at their point of execution. One deems him "the only actor I've seen with stage absence", for instance.
Having your own reviews quoted back to you is a chastening experience. One young writer who penned a play I called "cyber-twaddle" cornered me in a bar once and was able to repeat the exact phrase I'd used, so clearly had he been stung by it. My defence to him was that I was only doing my job, just as he was doing his.
And my defence about being so self-referential in this review is that this show itself - like so many other recent works from The Producers and Acorn Antiques to even Billy Elliot - thrives on its knowing, theatrical in-jokes. Some of it is very in. There's even an allusion here to the recent politics of a critic who accepted another's job, then turned it down, by which point the incumbent had been undermined and lost his job anyway.
And an extended riff on the "great grey Stalin"
of the National itself, and the dominance of the Oxford and Cambridge boys who now run it instead of the actor-manager Olivier who founded it, neatly encapsulates changes in theatrical fashion and power that have occurred in the past few decades.
Based on the 1973 film of the same name, director Phelim McDermott - who has co-written it with Lee Simpson for this co-production between the National and McDermott and Simpson's company Improbable, the force behind Shockheaded Peter - has created a box of theatrical tricks and illusions, by turns hilarious and harrowing, silly and sinister.