Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Friday, July 16, 2004 ::
Criticwatch # 3: Sheridan Morley (again)
Has Sheridan Morley no shame? In this week's The Stage, under the headline 'Banished to the back pages', Sherry ponders on the marginalisation of British theatre critics. His attempts to explain this mystery and to celebrate what the great critics of our recent past are nakedly self-serving. In his delineation of the ideal critic he is once again feathering his nest.
Sherry, who evidently fancies himself as a raconteur, outspoken opinion-shaper, and all-round man of the theatre, declares that the main reason for the critics' withdrawal from the cultural spotlight is that they aren't flamboyant characters any more. The soundness of this judgment is very suspect. Kenneth Tynan certainly was a dandy of a man but his reputation hangs on his theatre criticism, not his decreasingly effective attempts to work in theatre. Tynan's greatness lay in his reviews, not his revues. If he hadn't written like a dream - a dream of passion, wit and daring - no one would have cared a hoot for his polka dot handkerchiefs, nor his bright purple suits. Sherry, who writes like a nightmare, mistakes, as he always does, sheen for lustre.
His next exemplar is Jack Tinker (pictured below), 'the last', Sherry solemnly pronounces, 'of the great showbiz drama critics'. What a sorry epitaph that is and what a token of Sherry's sunken intellectual ambitions. Throughout the article Sherry is careful to insist that critics must not aspire to be 'professors of theatre or social reformers'. No, there should be no acuity of analysis and knowledge, nor any ethical fire. Just the tinkling of tiny minds dazzled before the altars of showbiz. As we've already demonstrated, Sherry is no thinker himself and this piece of projection is designed to justify and defend his bland recycling of received ideas and empty commonplace. Let's be clear. Jack Tinker's criticism is utterly unmemorable and surely his only lasting distinction will be that his savaging of Sarah Kane's first play got him immortalised as a sadistic doctor and torturer in her later play, Cleansed.
Sherry's third great icon of critical flamboyance is Milton Shulman. This is a man about whom even his recent obituarists found it hard to say wholeheartedly nice things. Perhaps it is true that Shulman spent a few years before the war supporting his legal career by singing in night clubs; to claim that this gave Milt a feel for the theatre is a telling indicator of the value of Sherry's judgments. And let's remember: Milton Shulman was the man who urged the prosecution of the Royal Court for allowing Shopping and Fucking onto its stages, railed in 1993 against a 'plague of pink plays' when Beautiful Thing and My Night with Reg transferred to the West End, and regularly slept through productions that he'd go on to review. Since Sherry himself called for the closing of the Theatre Upstairs to save him from Sarah Kane plays, and is an inveterate theatre snoozer, we can understand his desire to defend the appalling Shulman.
It's not just flamboyance: he also thinks theatre critics have drifted into obscurity by scorning the West End (as we know, Sherry is rarely seen anywhere else, another thing he has in common with Shulman), and he believes that theatre critics nowadays lack experience of making theatre. Both of these claims may be true in themselves, though it's doubtful, but they certainly are irrelevant to the marginalisation of theatre critics.
But the real reason why Sherry is foisting these spurious claims on us is revealed at the end. He's still sore that he was so peremptorily sacked by Punch, The Spectator and the New Statesman and replaced in each case by 'amateurs'. It's true that Toby Young is even worse a critic at the Spectator than Sherry, and perhaps Michael Portillo was a surprising choice for Britain's most prominent left-wing magazine.
However, at least Michael Portillo saw the plays he reviewed, and tried to review them honestly. Sherry's departure from the New Statesman was not purely capricious on their part. His last published column appeared in the 26 May 2003 issue; but this was not the last issue he wrote. In fact, a further column was submitted reviewing Tanita Gupta and Richard Jones's imaginative reworking of Hobson's Choice at the Young Vic in July 2003. But it was turned down by the New Statesman. Why?
Because he hadn't seen the show. Sherry failed to appear at the press night, instead sending his wife, Ruth Leon, in his place, whose view of the piece he passed off as his own. And this was far from the first time. When the theatre got wind of this, they rightly objected and Sherry's "review" was spiked. Not long after, he was fired from the New Statesman who had good reason now to be cool towards their new theatre critic, the same man who now lectures everyone on the high standards he expects of theatre critics in this country.
It is indeed shocking when a respectable theatre critic is ousted in favour of a rank amateur. And this has just happened at the Express. Robert Gore-Langton was the respected critic and Sherry's the amateur. He should go.
In the meantime, would any eagle-eyed Encore reader who spots Sherry sleeping through - or absent from - a show, perhaps with his wife scribbling notes in the next seat, please email to the usual address? Cheers!