[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/53760?ns=guardian&pageName=Critics+under+fire+for+slating+play+after+long+lunch%3AArticle%3A1311418&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Timberlake+Wertenbaker+%28Playwright%29%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section%2CUK+news&c6=Mark+Brown&c7=09-Nov-27&c8=1311418&c9=Article&c10=News&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTimberlake+Wertenbaker[/img]• Writer says reviewers in no state to appreciate play
• 'Stage rage' and blog attack in lively week in theatre
It would make a decent play. On a single day you have allegedly worse-for-wear critics trashing a play they should not be reviewing. You have a boozy lunch where one of the main topics of conversation is a schoolboy spat between reviewers. And you have a West End show where an irate actor screams threats at a member of the audience. All good drama – except, this week, it was reality.
Britain's theatre critics are an often maligned group: "dead white males," the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner once called them; a "moribund, joyless, detached bunch" according to AA Gill.
But now they need to add a new charge. The playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker today claimed that critics at her first night on Monday were in no fit condition to review a play after a boozy theatre awards lunch.
Her play, The Line, at north-east London's Arcola theatre, got mixed reviews. The Guardian's Michael Billington gave it three stars while the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts said he rather enjoyed it. The play, he said, was "agreeably wordy" and "it has the comforting texture of rice pudding".
But it also got some stinkers.
Wertenbaker believes that the actors were not given a fair crack of the whip because many of the critics had spent the day being liberally wined and dined at the Evening Standard theatre awards – a four-hour affair at the Royal Opera House that involved a champagne reception followed by lunch and as much wine as they wanted to drink. She said some critics had had the grace to say they would come on a different night, but most came after the lunch.
Wertenbaker told the Guardian: "I've had bad press nights and bad reviews but I've never had the sense that the critics were too tired to engage. It is a complicated play, it's difficult, you have to pay attention to it.
"I just felt that the play didn't have a chance. The actors said they had a great night the previous evening and the atmosphere was very different. They did feel they were wading through something quite heavy. They weren't all drunk but it's hard to get through something like that [a long awards ceremony] without being tired. It was very unfortunate that our press night was after it."
The critics have a different account. Mark Shenton, the non-drinking theatre critic for the Sunday Express and The Stage, said the problem lay with the play: "Actors, writers, directors do from time to time attempt to discredit critics as a distraction from their own bad work."
He was echoed by Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, who hasn't had a drink in nine years. "I stayed awake throughout the entire play and I rather wish I hadn't. It's just a very, very dull play. I think she's being a bit silly."
Wertenbaker said she agreed with Billington who this week suggested press nights should be staggered, that they were often the worst nights for all concerned. Billington, who was not at the awards lunch, said: "I agree with her point about press nights, but I think she's wrong to suggest that the reaction to her play was the result of insobriety. I think critics today are a pretty straitlaced, sober lot."
The row comes as the reputation of critics gets a battering on a different front. A spectacular falling out between the Sunday Telegraph's critic Tim Walker and the Financial Times's Ian Shuttleworth has recently gone very public on a blog on the Whatsonstage.com website.
It began with a Walker review in which he said his night was ruined by "Giant Haystacks sitting directly behind me: his huge, hot tummy protruded ever more insistently against my head and shoulders as the evening progressed. I am not sure if he was leaning forward or he was simply so colossal that his tummy could impact upon me even with his back to his seat. I didn't dare look. I started to fret that this was the way I was going to go: fighting for my breath in blubber."
The man in question was Shuttleworth, who also edits Theatre Record and says he has "several times pointed out egregious howlers in Tim Walker's reviews".
The often childish - "boo hoo, fatty started it" - exchange between the two men was, ironically, much discussed at the long lunch on Monday.
On the same day, the idea that a night at the theatre is a gentle one was being challenged at the Duke of Yorks theatre in London. The actor Ian Hart had to be pulled away from someone in the audience who, he claimed, had been talking through the play. Before the altercation, Hart's costar John Simm in Speaking in Tongues had told him "Leave it! Leave it!" The man in question, Gerard Earley, denied he had been talking.
The incident involving Hart, who has previously said he hates audiences, can be seen as an isolated incident. But the reputation of Britain's theatre critics will be an ongoing debate. Spencer conceded that the Shuttleworth-Walker spat was giving critics a bad name. "I rather wish it would stop, it doesn't do our reputation any good at all. That's the problem with blogs, what used to whispered privately is now all over the internet."
And while he rejects Wertenbaker's criticism, he said grudges would not be held, he said. "David Hare is always having a pop at us and he gets good and bad reviews. It's all part of the rough and tumble."
[b]When theatre-makers fight back[/b]
• John Osborne made no secret of hating the critics and in 1966 formed "The British Playwrights Mafia" to be in a state of war with them. He once sent Benedict Nightingale a card with the words: "Safer for your health to stay clear of downtown Chichester. You sing first; Fatso Morley next." He also barred Nicholas de Jongh from his funeral.
• Dame Judi Dench, after a rather stinging review of Madame de Sade, sent Charles Spencer a letter, stating: "I've always rather admired you but now realise you're an absolute shit." And, in a reference to an on-stage accident, she added: "I'm only sorry I didn't get a chance to kick you when I fell over – maybe next time..."
• Nicholas de Jongh wrote that Steven Berkoff's Hamlet was "fatally miscast". Berkoff's response on seeing de Jongh in a bar? "Hello, Nick, I'm going to kill you." The actor later said: "Of course I was only acting but he took it seriously. So my acting did convince him after all."
• Most of the time it is verbal, apart from David Storey who walloped the Guardian's Michael Billington after he called Mother's Day a stinker. Billington later said: "All I recall is that the incident turned me into a mini-martyr invited on to chat shows to describe being duffed up by a dramatist."
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Guardian: Critics under fire for slating play after long lunch
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