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Michael Coveney: Scholarly scandals and musical sour grapes

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"There goes a precious rogue: both a writer and a critic," is one of my favourite lines in the last act of The School for Scandal, boisterously revived by Jessica Swale at the marvellous new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park last night.

Kirsty Besterman (Lady Teazle) and Daniel Gosling (Sir Peter Teazle) in The School for Scandal
© Francis Loney
As the show finished, Roger Lloyd Pack, sitting nearby, came over and repeated it pointedly in my ear. Like so much of Sheridan's writing in the play, it's a brilliant line because it's both a put-down and a snide sort of compliment and can stand a variety of implications dependent on the delivery of the actor.

The programme for the show comes in the form of a newspaper called The Daily Sneer, with the director's leading article appropriately entitled "Notes on a Scandal." Inside, there are various smaller stories by one Lois Jeary, whom I assumed to be a satire on the Evening Standard arts reporter, Louise Jury. But no, Lois Jeary really does exist by that name and is studying for an MA in Text and Performance while assisting Swale and working as a freelance journalist.

Dominic Cavendish of the Daily Telegraph is a precious rogue indeed, having contributed a short play about Mrs Thatcher to the current bill at Theatre 503. Fearless Telegraph diarist Tim Walker (another sort of precious rogue who doubles as the Sunday Telegraph's theatre critic) has predictably taken a swipe at Theatreland for yet again denigrating his political heroine, apparently unmindful of his colleague Cavendish's sensitive part in this campaign; the play was warmly noticed by Sam Marlowe in The Times today.

Mark Shenton's a fairly precious rogue, too, noting this week that he hardly has to step out of his front door to visit all the thriving theatres in the SE1 postal district: the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the Menier, the new Southwark Playhouse, the reprieved Union. Rich and rewarding territory, indeed.

Which is why it's so exciting to discover the new Park, which is serving a buzzy new quartier in the city that I hardly know, even though it's very near where I live. On my first visit, I dithered around King's Cross on the tube to get onto the Piccadilly line; the theatre is right by Finsbury Park station.

But last night, I tried something different, taking the Overground to Barking line just two stops from Gospel Oak to Crouch Hill, then walking ten or 15 minutes down Stroud Green Road to the theatre. I had no idea how lively and interesting this route was, heaving with bars and restaurants and a real mix of social groups and ethnicities all intent on having a good time.

One attractive looking restaurant carried a review by Giles Coren of The Times in the window. As this described the clientele as good-looking people with no money, I was disqualified from entering on at least one count (you choose), so I popped into Nando's over the road; what's good enough for Judi Dench and her grandson is certainly good enough for me.

There I pondered the vicissitudes of musical theatre while dismembering my peri-peri chicken and scooping up my bowl of macho peas. (For non-Nando-ists, the peas are macho because they are spicy and garlicky and chili-y and, well, totally yummy-y.)

We're currently being engulfed in the pre-publicity for the second big show of the year, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, following on the Twitter-touted Book of Mormon. And again, much of the feature material is ecstatically and critically onside with the project, no doubt justifiably, but a little too obviously, perhaps.

The Sunday Telegraph has already carried an extensive review of the show on its news pages (not written by Tim Walker), picking various holes in the production and pre-empting not only the official critical verdict (which is embargoed until 26 June) but also its own Telegraph magazine colour preview last weekend.

It's all very tense-making, for audiences and creatives alike. The Tony awards last weekend obviously got to Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC, when he glumly commented that Matilda, defeated in the best musical category by the feel-good but equally British-themed contender Kinky Boots, was the superior show. He may be right, but winning awards isn't everything.

Doran at least can be consoled by the fact that West Side Story was defeated in a similar fashion by The Music Man back in 1958. West Side Story is obviously the superior show, and probably the greatest musical, or one of them, of all time.

But, d'you know what? I have a more than sneaking affection for The Music Man ("Seventy-Six Trombones" is a show-stopper and "Till There Was You" one of the greatest of all Broadway love duets) - and audiences will always love it, and long after Kinky Boots, I suspect, has been forgotten. Can the same be said of Matilda?