Michael Coveney: Cumberbatch, Kidman and the hazards of hype

Buzz is an essential part of showbiz – but it can be misplaced

Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51
Star attractions: Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51
© Johan Persson
The return to the London stage of Benedict Cumberbatch and Nicole Kidman has renewed the old notion of star power at the box office as opposed to the slightly dull insistence on "the play's the thing" (pace Hamlet) or changing the demographic of the audience, as if theatre was a branch of the social sciences or social engineering.

A lot of good theatre these days spurns the idea of commercial break-out… until a freak success like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or Black Watch, or even Hamilton on Broadway comes along to break through the "art" theatre barrier and appeal to the masses, or at least the regular theatregoing mini-masses.

The best new plays at the Royal Court used to be hits because of the actors playing the leads: Laurence Olivier in Osborne's The Entertainer, Paul Scofield and Tom Conti in Hampton's Savages, Joan Plowright in Wesker's Roots, John Gielgud in Bond's Bingo, Helen Mirren in Hare's Teeth 'n' Smiles.

That's all changed. Playwrights don't write roles for above-the-title star actors any more – Mark Rylance in Butterworth's Jerusalem was a magnificent aberration – because, in the subsidised sector, there's now an ingrained suspicion of the big name actor in a challenging new play. Everything's levelled off, in Sloane Square at least, in a more democratic, non-hierarchical pursuit of theatrical excellence, a trend started there by Max Stafford-Clark, a director, paradoxically, with a real nose for stardom-in-embryo in the acting talent he recruited.

This means that the hype that goes with any blockbuster enterprise is even less welcome among the puritanical elite than it used to be. I've never understood this. Putting on theatre, any theatre, is all about beating the drum, a certain amount of Barnum and Bailey, huckstering and hectoring. And the great thing about a Cumberbatch or a Kidman, bona fide stars both, is that the hype is self-generating, especially in the new world of social media. As long as it doesn't get out of hand – which, for a while, it did with Bendy's Hamlet – the genuine star actors, as well as the media and the public, learn to live with it. And both Bendy and Nicole have handled the pressure with a good grace and perfect manners.

'The hype surrounding a musical like Kinky Boots is itself part of the show'

At the other end of the theatrical spectrum – if indeed there is still such a thing as a spectrum – I've noted a growing hype and hysteria in the way the most modest of fringe theatre enterprises sell themselves. And this tendency borders on the laughable. The Leicester Square Theatre, for instance, home to obscure comedians (well, okay, Joan Rivers appeared there a couple of times), dubious floor shows and minor try-out musicals, is frequently "bigged up" as a West End venue which, strictly speaking, it's not, though it is of course located in the West End.

A new musical announced this week for the White Bear, Kennington, comes with the title Kathy Kirby: Icon and an unknown director at a pub theatre near the Angel is billed as an "Old Red Lion legend." In the first instance, "icon" surely now has entered the banned territory also occupied by "luvvie," "impressive" and "Pinteresque" (though of course I'm as guilty as anyone else of using these terms; well, one of them, anyway) and the use of it carries a sort of bathos, too. It's not as though the tragic Ilford songbird is any kind of Judy Garland or even Shirley Bassey.

And just look what happened when someone had the much brighter idea of doing a show about Dusty Springfield… Dusty opened at the Charing Cross Theatre to the worst reviews in ages, after cast walk-outs, delays and months, if not years, of previews, only for new Times critic Ann Treneman to sombrely declare (presumably in jovial mode) that they could have done with a few more previews to sort out the problems.

First night frolics: Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper at Kinky Boots
First night frolics: Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper at Kinky Boots
© Dan Wooller

And if that Old Red Lion director really is a legend, then my name's Harold Clurman (an American director and critic who really was a legend, even though nobody knows anything about him today; that's why saying he is a legend means something… such as, go on then, go and find out about him and learn something). I dare say, in some quarters, Kinky Boots director Jerry Mitchell is a legend too, but that status can only be conferred in the future when and if his track record – highlights so far include The Full Monty, Hairspray, La Cage aux Folles and (the best musical theatre direction in the West End last year) Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – stands any sort of comparison with that of Hal Prince, Jerome Robbins or Gower Champion. And that day is a long way off.

As critics, we're often creeping into late previews, as in New York, to meet early online deadlines on opening nights, a habit I'm renowned for deploring. Especially in the case of a show like Kinky Boots; it was hugely enjoyable to be part of a proper, glamorous "hello darling, hello Graham (Norton)" first night, and it's the job of a critic to calculate how much of that razzmatazz is a two-way process between the cast and an expectant audience, as well as objectively inspecting the body on the slab, as Irving Wardle so chillingly expressed it. The hype surrounding a musical like Kinky Boots is itself part of the show, and a positive vibe indeed.

The downside of hype is of our own making, I'm afraid, in the star system which corrals plays and musicals into misleading categories of definition. These days, I find three-star reviews much more interesting to read than others, because you feel the critic, if a good one, is relaxing within the luxury of not having to match his or her words to the constraints of two or four stars. One or five stars don't create this problem: they're just flat-out fun to write (and, hopefully, to read).

And now, of course, we're inundated with shows from Edinburgh bearing four or five stars from publications and websites nobody's heard of or cares about. You have to know something about the critic for the stars, let alone the review itself, to make any kind of sense. Which is a reminder that hype is in the hands of the media and only the most skilful of producers – Cameron Mackintosh is a master of this – know how best to take advantage in their enthusiastic collusion.

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