WhatsOnStage Logo

Michael Coveney: Standard wails, snails and whales, and the Elephantom in the room

Three critics have resigned from the ''Evening Standard'' Awards judging panel over accusations of vote-rigging

WhatsOnStage logo
Helen Mirren in The Audience

There has been a bit of interval muttering going on and now it's all coming out. The Times reports today how three of the Evening Standard drama awards panel - Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, Georgina Brown of the Mail on Sunday and Susannah Clapp of The Observer - have all resigned after disputing the validity of Helen Mirren winning as best actress for The Audience.

It is said that two of the other nominees in Mirren's category - Linda Bassett in Roots, Lesley Manville in Ghosts, Billie Piper in The Effect and Kristin Scott Thomas in Old Times (who alternated anyway in the two leading roles with Lia Williams) - were tied, and that Henry Hitchings, the Standard's critic, and Sarah Sands, the Standard's editor, switched their votes to favour Mirren.

This would appear to be perfectly okay, all part of the cut and thrust and horse-trading that goes on when awards are decided in committee. But there was no discussion in this instance as all the voting was done by secret ballot. This barmy idea was introduced, The Times says, by the editor of Vogue, Anna Wintour, who was brought in "to raise the profile of the awards." Instead, it's all gone horribly wrong so that the integrity of the decisions now looks decidedly shaky.

Not to other panellists Libby Purves and Matt Wolf, however, who are staying on, even though Purves is no longer critic on The Times, peddling her views on a new personal website (Wolf writes reviews for the International Herald Tribune, among others).

Perhaps they will be joined by Michael Arditti, the novelist and former Standard drama critic who has just been appointed theatre critic of the Sunday Express in succession to Mark Shenton; Shenton was accused of bringing the Sunday Express into disrepute after rude pictures of him on a gay website surfaced 20 years after they were taken. Given the Sunday Express' other proprietorial interests in pornography as documented in the current Private Eye, you would have expected Shenton to be applauded by his paymasters, not hypocritically exposed, if that's the right word, by them.

The Standard, of course, is entitled to give awards to whomever it pleases, and the panel's decisions anyway are supplemented by a string of odd-looking discretionary awards over which they have no jurisdiction (for instance, this year, the special awards handed out to David Walliams, Kevin Spacey and Maggie Smith, a five-times winner of the best actress gong). The surest way of restoring integrity would be to cut down on this list, reduce the awards to six categories, and leave the judges, chaired by the editor, to battle it out alone and unimpeded over their private dinner; that's what used to happen, and the awards had no rival.

What with all this hoo-ha and the passing of Peter O'Toole, one of the truly great and charismatic actors of our time, the seasonal jollity is turning a little sour. Time, therefore, to turn to a couple of seasonal shows for children, and first of all the low-tech playschool atmosphere of The Snail and the Whale at the St James.

The noon-day performance on Friday was packed with tiny tots and and posh yummy mummies all relishing how the Tall Stories trio of Patrick Bridgman, Ellen Chivers and Rhiannon Wallace play Julia ('Gruffalo') Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's picture book as a father/daughter story as well as an adventure shared by the immensely long hump-backed whale and the tiny slithery snail.

The whale is constructed of pieces of black furniture, the snail's a puppet. So that's easy. How would the National Theatre rise to the challenge of a floating phantom elephant in their version of Ross Collins' delightful picture book The Elephantom in the NT Shed?

I couldn't wait to find out, so I hurried over to the South Bank after a quick lunch with Lady Lucy French, the redoubtable, glamorous development director of the St James (lips tightly pursed on the departure of David Gilmore as artistic director issue) whom I've known since her days at Hampstead Theatre and later at the Open Air, Regent's Park, pausing only to greet Father Christmas by the sausage and beer stall in the German market on the South Bank.

Thus cheered and fortified, I was ready for anything, not least the brilliant air-filled creation of a bouncing blue waggle-eared flying phantom elephant. Or was I just seeing things? Ben Power's adaptation is an off-shoot of War Horse inc: directed by Finn Caldwell and master puppeteer Toby Olie (with Marianne Elliott consulting) and three performers manipulating the ghostly visitor.

There are no words as the Elephantom barges like a barrage balloon into the lives of a little girl (Audrey Brisson) and her parents (Laura Cubitt and Tim Lewis). Bed-time is a hoot, not to say a trumpet - brilliant musical accompaniment by Adam Pleeth on an array of percussion and wind (sic) instruments - as Elephantom snuggles down with some odd deflationary noises.

Although it only plays for an hour, I reckon the show needs tightening when it moves into Mr Spectral's toy shop section, where the girl goes to buy an empty box and chase off the phantom big ears. But I won't easily forget the sight of several blue elephants disco dancing on their party night - or was I just "seeing" that, too? - before they move on above the rooftops to the next port of trunk call. Definitely a contender in the Standard's new category for best elephant show of the year, with or without a secret ballot.