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Critics in full cry at empty Cri

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I now know what it must feel like for actors to play in front of small houses. Yesterday's lunchtime "Critics at the Cri" session attracted barely a dozen people, and at least three of them were friends of the cast.

The "cast" in this instance were Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph, Nicolette Jones of the Sunday Times (she's a highly regarded, and very good, children's fiction reviewer) and myself, chaired by the avuncular, rosy-cheeked Al Senter.

At least we were spared the dismay of seeing the paucity of the audience as the house lights were down throughout, but we could feel the lack of hugger-mugger warmth of a bigger crowd like a damp fog creeping over the footlights. 

Still, we gave it a pretty good go in our discussion of Long Day's Journey Into Night (which, director Anthony Page told me later in the day, is itself struggling to find an audience, an amazing dereliction of an audience's duty, as well as a huge shock), David Edgar's Written on the Heart (by no means a box office sensation, alas; producer Thelma Holt has confessed that while losing one's shirt is bad enough, losing the entire wardrobe is utterly dispiriting) and Robert Holman's Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar Warehouse.

All three of us were in general agreement on the quality of all three shows, though Spencer finds the Edgar "boring." I suspect that would not have been the case had the play been presented in its proper context, ie as an RSC production in a dedicated RSC London home - which does not, as yet, exist. The Holman plays had been an utter revelation to Nicolette Jones, and she rejoiced particularly in their pivotal moments of truthful revelation and simplicity.

I'm sure a few more folk will turn up for next Friday's lunchtime event, an interview with Michael Ball conducted by Mark Lawson, and the next in the Criterion's series of radio plays performed on the stage, is Joe Orton's Ruffian on the Stair, with Johnny Flynn and the incomparable Lesley Sharp. That's at 5pm on May 17.

It's always been a sporadic ambition of West End theatre owners to keep their properties buzzing out of show-time hours, and the Criterion programme, produced by Sam Hodges and Natalie Macaluso, is one of the best initiatives in recent years.

They also produce high quality flyers, but they need to distribute them more extensively, and drum up a bit more publicity. If I'd have been them, I'd have stood outside the three theatres housing the three shows we discussed yesterday, on Wednesday night, and leafleted the exiting audience.

Lunch in town, or a lunchtime event, always poses a slight problem when there's a show in the evening: to go home, or not go home. I decided to maximise my time by perching with my laptop for a couple of hours in a quiet West End location, then meeting a friend for a leisurely meal in Chinatown before heading over to Sloane Square for the opening of Mike Bartlett's absolutely terrific new play, Love Love Love, with knockout performances by Victoria Hamilton, whom I revere, and Ben Miles, whom I admire incontinently. 

It was there that I bumped into Anthony Page, one of the great Royal Court directors of the past and, like his colleague and contemporary Bill Gaskill, a regular at openings on their old stomping ground. It is extraordinary how, for most people who've worked there, the Royal Court remains part of their DNA for the rest of their lives. There's no escape.
Even I, a lowly script reader for a couple of years in the early 1970s, think of the Royal Court as "my" theatre, and I never approach the place without a sense of ownership, participation and excitement. And the Bartlett play last night will enter the annals as a famous Royal Court opening, mark my words.


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