Michael Coveney: A half-full Monty and whispers of Inner Voices from Naples

The closure of several West End shows at once has prompted some to question the impact of critics

The cast of The Full Monty
The cast of The Full Monty

I've just spent a few days in Naples – on an impromptu but unplanned preparatory exercise for the arrival at the Barbican next week of Neapolitan maestro Eduardo De Filippo's Inner Voices – and returned to find The Full Monty suddenly pulled at the Noel Coward.

I'm as surprised as anyone at the news, and I suppose we must take the producers at their word when they say that West End audiences just weren't evincing as much enthusiasm for the show as the critics and the customers on tour.

But we can't be sure, for the simple reason that West End producers don't publish attendance figures and box office figures (as they do in New York). It's commonly assumed, for instance, that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a runaway hit. Like many West End shows, it's usually sold out at weekends; but my information is that it struggles quite a lot during the week.

And the sudden demise of The Full Monty, coinciding with the announcement that We Will Rock You is coming off after 12 years, has inevitably led to comment along the lines of, well, if the shows critics love fail, and the shows they dislike succeed, what is the point of having critics at all?

Another strand in this argument about the possible superfluity of critics was skilfully woven by Phil Willmott the other day when he said that his World War One musical The Lost Boys had been sustained at two fringe theatres by the blogs and tweets of enthusiasts flying in the face of critical indifference.

The argument is a false one based on the premise that criticism is an expression of popular taste, or should be, or that criticism somehow has a duty to support worthwhile endeavour; in other words, that criticism is only good or useful if it operates as an adjunct to, and generator of, success.

Equally, criticism is sometimes now seen as just one other element in the general brouhaha of blogs and tweets and "joining the conversation." All that's great, but blogs and tweets are not criticism. And it's dangerous and unhealthy of critics, let alone the theatre world itself, to suppose that they are.

Good criticism is as much about good writing as good (or bad) theatre, and the fact that critics appear to be downgraded these days – although, as I've pointed out before, television, food and film critics are not equally demoted; maybe theatre critics just aren't as good, or as respected, any more? – along with the decline in the newsprint industry, does not eliminate their need to exist. That need is greater than ever. But people must want to read them.

When De Filippo's Inner Voices was first (and last) seen in London in 1983, the newspaper I was writing for (the Financial Times) was on strike, initiated by the printers, for a few months. So my account of what turned out to be Ralph Richardson's last stage appearance in Mike (Crazy For You) Ockrent's production in the National's Lyttelton was squashed into a late summer round-up when the paper returned to the streets.

Richardson played one of his classic semi-somnolent patriarchs – the De Filippo role – pronouncing, after a murder committed possibly in a dream, that what people had actually killed was their faith in each other. The play dates from 1948 and charts a series of chaotic domestic fall-outs in an impoverished quarter of the city in the aftermath of war.

Naples is spectacularly impoverished today, still, frayed and broken around the edges, with desperately high levels of unemployment. But it's a highly dramatic city to visit, with its dangerous bustle, reckless car driving, castles, palaces and squares, and fantastic food. I hadn't been for many years, but we went partly to catch up with old friends who live there and partly for a shot of that peculiar European adrenaline that only the great Italian cities really provide.

I wasn't looking for theatre, but in the absence of anything playing at the San Carlo opera house, we took a tour of that incredibly beautiful venue, where Donizetti introduced Lucia Di Lammermoor and Verdi, Il ballo in maschera. On the stage, there were final rehearsals of this week's ballet revival of Le corsaire.

We sat in the royal box at the back of the six-tiered auditorium – the model for La Scala in Milan – and marvelled at the decoration, the gilt, the practical clock on the proscenium that proclaims the unstoppable momentum of art and music, the mirrors in every box on every level angled so that patrons could see the occupants of the royal box and tailor their reactions accordingly.

Other breathtaking must-sees in the city include the church of Santa Chiara with its cloisters and medieval frescoes; various Caravaggio paintings, most notably the Flagellation of Christ in the Museum of Capodimonte, home of an incredible collection, some from the Bourbons, some from the Borgias, housed in a decaying palazzo the middle of a hunting forest; the octagonal church of the Misericordia, with another great, allegorical Caravaggio; and one of De Filippo's favourite restaurants, La scialuppa, down in the port.

Our waiter there, of course, knew nothing about De Filippo, any more than anyone we talked to on Capri (40 minutes away by hydrofoil) remembered anything about Gracie Fields who kept a house there; the tour guides point out Giorgio Armani's villa these days, instead. But I felt his spirit, and that of Joan Plowright in the NT production of Saturday Sunday Monday, the smell of ragout wafting through the stalls.

Inner Voices next week is a co-production of the Teatri Uniti of Naples, the Piccolo in Milan and the Teatro di Roma. The Filippo/Richardson role of Alberto is taken by Tony Servillo, star of the Oscar-winning (best foreign language) film The Great Beauty, and his brother (played here by Robert Stephens) is played by his brother, Peppe Servillo.

I guess the show won't draw the Full Monty crowd, or the tweeters, but critics should have a field day – if they can find a slot for serious European theatre in another busy week that includes such potentially popular blockbusters as Fatal Attraction and I Can't Sing!. Those middle-to-low-brow events – in two of London's most historic and prestigious theatres, the Haymarket and the Palladium – surely can't fare any worse at the box office than The Full Monty, can they?