Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Andrew Haydon kindly commends me for my director's eye view on this year's Festival. That's very nice of him, but unfortunately that's not really what I'm doing. I've a couple of posts brewing on the different processes of keeping my two shows pinging away at full power - or trying to. But I'm not going to post them. I'm a slightly different director for every actor, which makes me six different directors at this Festival. That's a pretty delicate balance to strike, and posting on it in public and in detail would only make my job harder. Maybe when the dust has settled...

So instead, I'm going to engage in the time-honoured tradition of whinging about the critics. We've had some lovely reviews for both shows, but they really mean not a jot. Let me tell you why.

The top review for either is probably this lovely one from the Scotsman. Of course, we were very pleased, especially when we learned that the estimable Sally J Stott had further honoured us with a Fringe First nomination (which, unless Joyce McMillan has the best poker face in the business, we won't win). But already the clues were there. For a start, she gets my name totally wrong despite it being quite clearly written in the programme. Then comes her final sentence: "if you only feel you can cope with one show on torture and terrorism this festival season, this is probably going to be the funniest." Well, if you only see one, it certainly will be the funniest. These are tiny quibbles, perhaps, but along with a few other clunky sentences and a lack of any sort of penetration beneath the surface (it's not a difficult show to penetrate), one starts to lose trust.

Then came her review of Man Across the Way. Having swapped around characters and events in the plot recitation that dominates the review, she concludes that the play "ends cryptically". Certainly it does: if you aren't paying enough attention to get the character names the right way around, then teasing out ambiguities won't be your cup of tea. Then one backtracks this even more egregious lack of penetration to the Can of Worms review, and loses what little trust one had.

Let me get this straight: I don't at all mind having bad reviews. I've had much, much worse reviews than this humdrum three-starring (Can of Worms has had worse this festival, of which more soon) and I've even agreed with some of them. What I mind is presenting my work for assessment to someone who's not up to the job. Every audience response is valid, and she's not the first to find the play a bit too elusive to grasp. But it would be nice to be reviewed by someone for whom it's not such a strain. Should our reviewers be a member of the audience picked at random? Or should they qualify for their authority status with a minimum level of knowledge, penetration and ability to articulate those qualities?

Our best review for Man Across the Way came from the Metro, for whom we're also Pick of the Day today. And gratifyingly, he seems to have got it. So why do I also not trust that review?

I wasn't looking forward to seeing the Metro review. As a director I may be absurdly critical of my own work and certainly I'm rarely completely satisfied. But that show was the worst we've had. It was the day before everything clicked into place and the actors got a sense of the space and the tech and how everything fitted together. That day, it was low-key, it dragged and the audience shuffled. So did the guy from the Metro, who was sitting in front of me. So I'm glad he was nice about the show - and certainly, he was right to not really say anything at all about the production, if he was so determined to make a good show out of it - but it doesn't gratify me as a review does when it's earned.

And his review of Can of Worms was a real stinker. This doesn't invalidate his response to Man Across the Way (if it needs invalidating), but whereas Sally J Stott failed to engage with Man Across the Way, Christopher Collett flat refuses to even accept the premise of Can of Worms. Given that the press release promises a show that clowns around the subject of torture, surely they should have sent a reviewer who was, at the very least, prepared to engage with that? The first paragraph could have been written before he even saw the show.

Again, I don't mind that he didn't like the show - we knew some people would take against it, and we knew some of them would have pens - but it's a little galling, for example, that he doesn't even address whether or not it's funny. As it happens, the day he was there, there were gales of whole-audience belly laughter and I would have counted that performance a success. No audience is totally unanimous and I'm keen to hear from people who don't like the show. If they've something constructive to add.

Perhaps having intuited my irritation on this point, in his latest review, of Cal McCrystal's Callate! at the Assembly Rooms, he graciously acknowledges that "a section of the audience was clearly enjoying itself" before concluding that "it was hard to see what was so funny". Bullshit. It's your job to figure out what was so funny. And if you don't agree with those who thought it was funny, it's your job to figure out why, and to articulate that.

As I've perhaps neglected to say on these pages before, I'm as happy with both shows as I've ever been with anything, and it's exciting to run two such utterly different shows back-to-back. Like Chris Goode, who's been much more badly-done by than me this year, I feel I deserve a bit more effort at engagement on the part of my critics. It's also frustrating that people keep sending the same reviewer to both shows, when they've only any interest in one sort of show. Surely people should be sent to see the sort of work they like, so they can assess it on its own terms, rather than attacking the terms?

We've a reviewer from The List coming to both shows today. I wonder which one she'll like?

POSTSCRIPT - I'd be interested to know if there's anyone on the planet apart from me who likes both shows. Announce yourselves! And if you liked one and not the other, I'd like to know why.

UPDATE - We've Lyn Gardner coming in to Man Across the Way in the next couple of days. I trust Lyn Gardner. Whether she likes it or not, I'll listen to what she has to say.

There, I've said it now.

AND ALSO - another two reviews for Can of Worms, one four star, one two star. There's something quite satisfying about splitting the critics...


oe said...

i liked both shows. but then i would say that, wouldn't i?

danbye said...

News just in:

Chris W said...

Hey Dan

Hope it is all going well up there. Just to say, anyone who criticises Cal Macrystal is a good egg in my book. Macrystal's work is the most puerile, boring, unfunny thing on earth and the people who laugh at it (and there are a few) are fucking morons who need to have their heads smashed in with spades.

There, I've said it now. :)

Aw, I want to be back in Edinburgh...

danbye said...

Yes, but can you articulate why?

Chris W said...

Yes. Below is the 2 star review I did of his last show for the FT (it ended up not getting published as the run I was sent to review was so short.) My point is that his work is not funny because it is lazy and cliche ridden. The fact that it is so succesful leads me to conclude that there are a lot of fucking morons in the world who will laugh at anything.


What do you get if you cross a flock of motorized pheasants with three comic Chinamen and a flatulent blonde? Not much apparently. In Cooped, the attractive, young, (and yes flatulent) blonde Laura du Lay arrives at an isolated mansion to take up her post as secretary to the mysterious Forbes Murdston. Inevitably, she falls in love with him, and her growing lust is hampered by only one thing: Forbes, apparently suffers from psychotic mood swings. He veers from trying to woo her, to trying to wound her, and it seems that only the revelation of a deep, dark secret can save them.

Originally created in 2001 by the physical theatre company Spymonkey and the director Cal McCrystal, Cooped is intended as an homage to the early cinematic horror comedies exemplified in the work of Abbot and Costello. But it falls down on two points: it’s neither scary nor funny. Failing to either successfully recreate or parody the genre, it ends up simply using some of the aesthetic motifs of those films to hold together a mix of banal gags and bland innuendo. It has the sort of bawdy humour that you see on those seaside postcards that no one ever buys. There are bad puns, ‘hilarious’ racial stereotypes and, yes, flatulent blondes.

What is so surprising about the show is the extraordinary degree of success it has already had. It has toured Europe, played in Canada, and run for two years as part of Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity in Las Vegas. Yet despite all of this, it lacks any kind of rigour. The plot rambles all over the place, and the audience interaction – apparently a key element of McCrystal’s work – is half hearted at best.

This is a shame because the performers are by no means untalented. Stephen Kreiss in particular has a peculiar and intriguing physical presence as the Butler Klaus. Yet the lack of any binding structure to the story leaves him with no direction in which to channel it. By the end the show feels tired; it relies far too heavily on dated jokes which should be laid to rest alongside the old black and white film reels from which they originally came.

Andrew Haydon said...

I'm not sure that I think newspapers *should* send obviously/naturally sympathetic reviewers. I mean, certainly it's galling when, for example, Billington is sent to things he patently won't like when Lyn might well have done. But I think you're closer to the truth when you argue that (in a nutshell) reportage and engagement is the key. Of course, rightly or wrong, the Scotsman in particular has a sliding scale of wordcount so that if you are one-starring a show (perfectly acceptable to do so, no matter how muchb I may disagree with some people's choices in this area) you only have 80 words to do so (not so good). It all has to do with newspapers not really giving a damn about theatre as anything other than, when popular, another coat-tail on which to ride.

I'm troubled by your suggestion that it is a critic's job to uncover what makes something funny and why other people are laughing. After all, if reviewing a Bernard Manning gig, I suspect I might well conclude that those laughing are doing so because they are probably utter cunts. It's a subjective view, informed by one's own myriad personal influences and politics etc.

Incidentally, I am in the process of knocking up reviews of both which at least try to engage with the premises and ideas. Whether they'll make the cut is another matter.

danbye said...

One of the good things about your reviewing is precisely that you always do seem to attempt to engage with the work and the premises on which it's based. And of course, beyond the simple existence of the star-rating system, there's nothing wrong with one-starring a show if it really does seem utterly awful.

But surely a critic has a responsibility to engage even with Bernard Manning? The conclusion drawn might well be that Manning and his audience are cunts, but to hold water that conclusion will be underpinned by some pretty tight argument about why to laugh at his gags is often to endorse a pretty horrid worldview. The most potent Manning-sceptics managed to argue toward this conclusion while acknowledging that, as a live comedian, he was a craftsman of considerable ability who really knew how to work his audience.

Manning-bating is all very easy, but he was right to compain that most of his more vicious critics had never actually seen his act: another one chalked up to lack of engagement, then.

But this is a lengthy sidebar on the main point: surely a critic reviewing a show designed to provoke laughter must acknowledge whether or not it does so successfully, and consider why that is, whether or not he himself finds his sides splitting. Likewise watching a show that is designed to provoke laughter but doesn't do so to any great extent, it would be weird not to mention this, whether or not you yourself found it hilarious. For example, it would be perfectly sensible for you to observe that the performance of Can of Worms you saw didn't provoke as much laughter as was clearly hoped, and to consider why this might be the case.

Laughter is a special case though, because it's just about the only form of instant feedback available during a performance, apart from the absence of shuffling. To digress again, I'm reminded of the couple of people who've told me that "the audience were rapt" or somesuch in Man Across the Way, by way of avoiding telling me that they weren't rapt themselves.

(I'm going to do a post on instant audience feedback at some point in the next few days drawing out some of this a bit more. It's a bit waffly and inconclusive at the moment.)

Andrew (a West End Whinger) said...

"Should our reviewers be a member of the audience picked at random? Or should they qualify for their authority status with a minimum level of knowledge, penetration and ability to articulate those qualities?"

Oh, definitely the former. For the average theatregoer a review from an official critic makes for a pretty random point of view. Might as well make it totally random.

"Articulate" would be a useful quality but "knowledge and penetration" are overrated.

How does a critic being "informed" help the average punter decide whether they are likely to enjoy it or not?

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Well, if Andrew's posting this far after the fact, I'll respond :)

His point - like yours, Dan, to a certain extent - seems predicated on a misconception of what reviewing is for. This is particularly ironic coming from a blogger, whose potential audience is by definition global: in such a context, what relevance does "the average punter decid[ing] whether they are likely to enjoy it or not" have? What's important is to convey what it's like, and let the reader put it to her/his own use - which may be the simple entertainment of the read in itself, something that the Whingers achiece admirably. (And that's not meant as a snidey implication that they do nothing more than that!)

"What it's like" is, of course, itself a vexed question. I see your point, Dan, about "engaging", but something about the argument makes me feel that what you're asking is for the reviewer's individuality to be subordinated either to the show (as if that had some kind of objectively identifiable characteristics) and/or its general reception, whereas in reality show, audience and first-person viewer are all part of a kind of flux of negotiation.

As a reader, I remember forming the view (some time before it was confirmed by meeting her) that Sally J. Stott was this year's principal young (and thus probably cheap), enthusiasm-over-experience writer on the Scotsman's Edinburgh team, but as a writer I can't agree with your implied position that a review is invalid if it fails to mention a "why". Whys are obvioualy desirable, but given space contraints, sometimes it's necessary to take the decision to try to get the "what" across and let the "why" fend for itself. It's an imperfect world, and we're none of us going to change that.

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