The arts have had it tough, but critics need to take off the kid gloves

Mediocre productions have been rewarded with glowing reviews during the pandemic. It’s time to be a little less gentle

Seen anything good lately? It is a common bit of small-talk, but often a reliable way to find the next play or film worth watching. The answer will be honest, and that really matters, although, more than likely, the tastes of an acquaintance will not exactly mirror your own.

According to many published critics we should all now be trying to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage production of Cinderella, or the revival of Anything Goes at the Barbican with Robert Lindsay, or the new horror sequel A Quiet Place Part II at the cinema. And if we were at the Royal Albert Hall prom last Tuesday when the male lead role in Tristan und Isolde had to be replaced in the second half by another singer in the cast, well, then we really hit the experience jackpot.

But how reliable these recommendations are has been called into question by recent murmurings. Many are suggesting that reviewers are being too kind as the shadow of the pandemic finally lifts. Is there perhaps a clandestine pact to encourage audiences back out with some concerted cheerleading?

If so, then the critics are doing us a disservice. Rave reviews of A Quiet Place Part II have probably expressed understandable relief at being allowed to watch a big budget movie in a cinema again, as the Telegraph critic Robbie Collin has admitted. But critical faculties should not be suspended.

The supportive response to Cinderella also comes with a long backstory. Lloyd Webber and his team at the Gillian Lynne theatre have struggled to bring up the curtain on a spectacular show against the odds. Yet many of those in the industry have quietly raised an eyebrow at the warm blanket of praise thrown over the cast.

Of course, it makes sense to wish to boost performers who have suffered so long in the cold blast of the coronavirus. And potential theatregoers possibly do need to be reminded of the reasons to spend money on the risky business of going out to being entertained.

It is dangerous though for stage and film productions to be treated with kid gloves at any time. It feeds into the damaging idea that the performing arts are a special case, a delicate flower not robust enough to be persuasive on its own. If theatre, which can be a bad night out, and film, which is sometimes a boring waste of money, are not held accountable for their perceived mistakes, then the whole enterprise becomes what it is often accused of: vainglorious irrelevance.

I’ve seen several things in the last year that have really delivered. From beguiling films such as Joanna Hogg’s sequel to The Souvenir, a jazz concert in a church hall, and an opera production in a car park. And certainly the pleasure was enhanced by the novelty, after months of only watching television. After all, every audience experience is inevitably affected by the mood of the world outside.

When the crowd at the Albert Hall stood to applaud the tenor Neal Cooper, nephew of the boxer Henry Cooper no less, for singing the role of Tristan as well as his own as Melot, at such short notice, their need to acknowledge the emotion of the moment was human and good.

So I do understand this over-riding impulse to be kind now. Jay Rayner, food critic for this newspaper, has even made a principle of it. Last year he controversially decided it was his duty to tell readers only about good places to eat while the hospitality industry still reeled with the shock of lockdown. “Now I’m simply writing about fewer of them, I’d prefer to accentuate the positive,” he explained.

But is a cinema or a theatre equivalent to a restaurant? A ticketed night out is a big deal for most people and the choices are usually pretty limited, even in the West End. And while an individual critic is clearly not speaking for everyone, and although it sounds pompous, if a production does not work it should always be pointed out fearlessly. That makes for a real conversation.(By the way, even the most churlish theatregoers I have spoken to say that Anything Goes really is that good: a remedy for grim times that cuts no corners.)


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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