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Boss Blog: Who's Squealing Like a Stuck Pig?

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Last Sunday, three days before the Arts Council’s funding cuts announcement, the Sunday Times’ review of Kneehigh’s production of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was published. In his piece, titled “A hard rain’s gonna fall”, critic Christopher Hart took the opportunity not simply to pass judgment on the musical – which he awarded just two stars – but also on Kneehigh and the entire arts world.

Hart suggests to the reader that they are being ripped off on a grand scale. “And you’re paying 40 quid or more for this?” he writes. “In fact, even if you’re not there, you’re still paying for it. You subsidise Kneehigh with your income tax, via the Arts Council.”

He goes on to conclude: “At a time when the arts world is squealing like a stuck pig about cuts, this pretentious and overhyped embarrassment offers a good argument for cutting the arts budget a lot more.”

I have reread that many times now and it still horrifies me: “At a time when the arts world is squealing like a stuck pig about cuts, this pretentious and overhyped embarrassment offers a good argument for cutting the arts budget a lot more.”

In fact, as Kneehigh clarified in a letter to the Sunday Times, which the newspaper published as a very brief correction this week, Kneehigh’s involvement in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was helmed by Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice, was in creative support and name only. They had no money, public or otherwise, in the production, which was mounted by a group of independent commercial producers, led by the ever-ebullient Australian Daniel Sparrow, whose other West End credits include All About My Mother and Holding the Man.

What impact did Christopher Hart hope that such misinformed and provocative comments would make? If they had been published earlier, they may quite possibly have been highly detrimental to the company’s funding. As it happens, the Arts Council’s decisions about where cuts would fall had already been made and Kneehigh was one of the – relatively – lucky ones.

While 206 organisations lost subsidy completely, Kneehigh – as with the Donmar Warehouse, Hampstead Theatre and Headlong – secured what, in this restricted funding round, essentially amounts to a standstill grant: a 2.3% cash (11% real) terms cut.

Anna Mansell, communications manager at Kneehigh, said they were “neither rejoicing or commiserating” at that result, considering the fate of others: “You can’t be happy or sad about it, you just have to get on and do your job of making the best work you can for audiences – which is what we’re doing.”

So, despite Christopher Hart, Kneehigh will go on. As we reported yesterday, of course, the same cannot be said for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which, less than a fortnight after opening in the West End, has posted closing notices for 21 May 2011, more than four months earlier than scheduled.

The power (or not) of critics to close a show is an oft-debated subject and not my concern here – nor is the critical consensus on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I would hope that no critic, whatever their opinion of a production, would take pleasure in thinking that they may have contributed to an early closure and its subsequent loss of jobs and investment. We can’t all like everything we see and, of course, it’s a critic’s job to say what he or she likes and dislikes and explain why.

More troubling for me in this instance is that Hart’s comments seem to suggest that he holds theatre, and the arts world in general, in disdain. That seems unfair and insulting to everyone involved, both theatre practitioners and theatregoers, particularly so at such a challenging time.

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