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A Criterion for Critics

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A new lunchtime review show kicked off at the Criterion Theatre yesterday, convened by producer Sam Hodges, in association with Whatsonstage.com, and it was a resounding success.

Or at least I think it was. Word seemed to have got around -- I heard from several people during the day who had known about "Critics at the Cri"  but had been unable to attend -- and the stalls were scattered with an estimated sixty or seventy people.

Sam, who's been running the excellent High Tide Festival in Suffolk these past five years, invited me to join a very lively panel of Patrick Marmion, Clemency Burton-Hill (of the Culture Show on BBC TV) and actor Gary Kemp, former front man of Spandau Ballet.

With me recently away on holiday -- very nice, thanks; Malaga's the most wonderful city -- and the others hectically busy all over the place, Sam had heroically manoevred us into a critical consideration of the same three shows: Mike Leigh's Grief at the National, Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury and The Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic.

We all had so much to say, I'm afraid, that the very good questions from the audence were kept to a frantic few minutes at the end. But how wonderful this venue proved for such an event: it's a lovely theatre, the Criterion, built completely below ground level, with just a stalls, a circle and a dress circle; but to sit on the stage is to fully appreciate not only its interior decoration but also its gorgeous wrap-around intimacy and acoustic.

There was general agreement on all three shows, I'm also sorry to say, though Patrick was less impressed by Grief than the rest of us, bridling at what he calls Leigh's "misanthropic" streak, oddly suggesting that not everyone else was so miserable after the last war.

Well, no, they weren't, but they weren't in this play! But he was hilariously savage about Rock of Ages and very good on Playboy, as were the percipiently effusive Clemmy (an actress before she went into television arts programmes; she reminds me a little of Sam Marlowe of The Times in her mixture of experience and analytical skills) and the brilliantly articulate Gary Kemp, bit of an eye-opener, that boy.

The next "Critics at the Cri" is on Thursday 3 November, and I hope Sam finds a few more bright sparks to join battle with Toby Young. Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard is available, and so will be one or two others, I'm sure...

I only know Henry likes the idea of "Critics at the Cri" because he told me so last night at the revelatory revival of Charles Morgan's The River Line at the Jermyn Street Theatre; he's on his way to Cheltenham this morning to address a sold out audience at the literary festival on the subject of his latest (and widely acclaimed) book, The Language Wars.

Meanwhile, Sam Hodges has announced an enticing lunchtime and late-night programme for the theatre on Piccadilly Circus that also includes Tim McInnerney reading ghost stories for Halloween, Mark Lawson talking to Mark Rylance on 10 November and Showstopper! improvising a brand new musical on Friday nights in November.

West End theatres, like football stadia, are wasted spaces for too many hours of the day, and Hodges' initiative deserves to succeed where several precedents have failed. When the Noel Coward was the Albery, there was a short time when you could have a soup and a sandwich in the beautiful circle bar. And when Andrew Lloyd Webber first acquired the Palace, his then producer Biddy Hayward made a sterling but doomed effort to keep the place alive in daylight hours.

The trick, as Sam has probably learned, is to have a programme with a fixed schedule, so that people know they can drop in on a regular basis. And I daresay a decent audience, as we had yesterday, will just about cover the cost of turning the lights on and opening the bar.




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