Friday Briefing: A week to showcase the best of Britain's theatre press
Critics' Circle Theatre Awards
On Tuesday (11th February), this year's Critics' Circle Theatre Awards were presented in an invitation-only ceremony at the Prince of Wales Theatre's Delfont Rooms (but live-streamed to Facebook). As chairman of the drama section of the Critics' Circle until last year, I hosted these awards for nine years; but I finally stepped down, and was replaced at Tuesday's event by the frequently hilarious Henry Hitchings, former theatre critic of the Evening Standard. It was a relief after all those years to be removed from the stress of co-ordinating the proceedings with our brilliant events organiser Terri Paddock, and a privilege to be invited by Henry to present one award (to Jamie Lloyd as best director, for his productions of Betrayal, Evita and Cyrano de Bergerac).
But I also made frequent appearances in Henry's speech, including a reference to my (now former) habit of going to the theatre at least eight times a week: I've happily put aside this addiction, and am now going to the theatre only four or five times a week instead.
That may still sound like a lot; but trust me, it's a serious change from before, when I was often to be found in the theatre up to 12 times a week.
Even critics who've retired can't entirely surrender it, so I know I'm not alone: I've seen Michael Billington at three consecutive openings recently. At Tuesday's awards, Michael - who's now had the best play Award named after him - was presented with a poster containing rave reviews... of his own work. My own contribution to that poster read: "One of the very best qualities for a person as well as a critic is kindness - and Michael Billington exemplifies it in his life as well as his writing. He also has an insatiable curiosity and a fantastic depth of knowledge which makes him one of the best critics we’ve ever had."
But mostly it was critics giving prizes, not getting them, on Tuesday - and it was, as ever, wonderful to see actors like Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson and Sharon D Clarke, Sam Tutty and Hammed Animashun, plus writers like Lucy Prebble and Jasmine Lee-Jones, honoured by the critics. As that list indicates, it was a blend of the new and the old, demonstrating how critics have a keen eye for the best amongst all generations of theatremakers.
As is now becoming increasingly widespread, critics were invited to a range of preview performances ahead of Wednesday's openings, and I went to see it on Monday, which turned out to be a major night, given how many other critics were there, including the Mail\s Patrick Marmion, his predecessor Quentin Letts (now on the Sunday Times), the Mail on Sunday's Robert Gore-Langton, the Financial Times' Sarah Hemming, the Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish, The Observer's Susannah Clapp and Time Out's Andrzej Lukowski. Of course one of the effects of this system of inviting the press is that all the reviews (barring the Sunday ones) can appear simultaneously on the day after the opening.
These reviews have been almost universally laudatory - including one from Paul Taylor in the Independent that dubbed it "Stoppard's masterpiece". The great thing about the British press is that there are (still) so many of us writing for different outlets, even if a few have been lost (including the Independent on Sunday, which abandoned theatre reviews even before its print incarnation was abandoned, and the Sunday Telegraph). So even if there tends to be an agreed consensus amongst the critics, there's always someone who will be an outlier. This time, it proved to be Clive Davis in The Times, whose two-star review was headlined, "moments of poignancy cannot save Tom Stoppard epic."
Caryl Churchill's short Far Away returns
The early invitations to the Stoppard meant, too, that many critics could also attend the clashing opening of the return of Caryl Churchill's Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse on Wednesday. And again, there was a critical outlier - amidst a spread of mostly four-star reviews, came a no-star review from the Daily Mail, though not by its lead critic by the occasional critic Melanie McDonagh.
Her review expressed a baffling lack of incomprehension, but at least that's an honest kind of reaction. But I'm not so sure about her determination that she must, therefore, be right. She writes, "There are times when you ask yourself: am I mad, or is everyone else? When I found that there were critics who admired and even enjoyed this production of Caryl Churchill’s play, I put to myself that question. And the answer, dear reader, is that it’s the (other) critics who are nuts. Plus, clearly, the playwright."