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Encore Theatre Magazine

Sheridan Morley [>]
Toby Young [>]

Criticwatch # 2: Crisis Special!

Oh no! Sheridan Morley's back! Despite being sacked from Punch, the Spectator and the New Statesman in rapid succession, the thrice-dumped old fraud isn't taking the hint, and he’s been aggressively touting for a new job. Finally the Daily Express, that filthy heap of immigrant-baiting claptrap, has ousted Robert Gore-Langton, their critic of six years, to make way for him.

How has this hairy-faced fool lasted so long? What is his attraction? Someone must be impressed by him - there’s a website which claims that to get Sheridan Morley to do an after-dinner speaker you need to offer - wait for it - somewhere between £6,000 and £10,000.

bearded fool, Sheridan MorleyWhy? What does he have to say? He’s ignorant and he admits it. He harbours Jurassic views about what theatre should be. He has a Pooterish intellect; go anywhere near an idea and he blunders around in a thicket of cliché and received wisdom. And he’s famous for falling asleep in the theatre, yet still going on to review the plays. Remember Matthew Wright? The Mirror critic who slated the Whitehall’s Dead Monkey without having seen it and got stung for £170,000 in damages? Surely that's a precedent. Next time Sherry dozes through a production and then reviews it, someone should sue.

Mind you, why he’s so tired all the time is anyone’s guess. It’s certainly not through overwork. His biography of John Gielgud is one of the worst biographies Encore has read, and the introduction is extraordinary. He admits that he was given the commission to write Gielgud’s authorised biography - an singular honour, by any yardstick - over a decade earlier, but only when he heard of Sir John’s death did this bloated workshy walrus consider it time to put pen to paper. Anyone reading the book on publication will have had reason to pause: Gielgud died in May 2000; the book was published in May 2001. Even imagining an unusually quick turnaround of subediting and proofs, this official biography can only have been tossed off in a summer. And he tells this story as if it should enhance the book.

He was only at the New Statesman for ten months, and hasn't had a regular review column for nine months so in case anyone's forgotten how awful he is, Encore presents some of the lowlights of that shameful tenure:

16 September 2002: Sherry begins with a ludicrous statement about his socialist credentials (will he do the same for the once-again Tory-supporting Express?), but adds, on a lighter note, ‘I have twice had the irritating misfortune (once at the old Punch and once more recently at the Spectator), of being replaced by writers of breathtaking inexperience and consequent unreadability, but happily they were the exceptions’. Ah, the pathos of reading those words knowing that within a year he’d been replaced by top theatre critic... Michael Portillo.

Perhaps fearing that New Statesman readers might be daunted by his knowledge and understanding, Sherry reassures us: ‘Critics are not supposed to be professors of drama. We are traffic police, sent out to report on what is happening in certain theatres on certain nights. What was the result? Who got hurt? Who survived and how did they manage it?’. Our mission then is clear: to report on the slow carcrash of Sheridan Morley’s career in theatre journalism.

14 October 2002: Less than a month in and a trip to see A Number prompts Sherry to confess his ignorance: ‘Somehow I always feel I have failed the A-level in Caryl Churchill: I must have been off school the day they handed out the codes, the guides to her work, the crib sheets’.

But this is a familiar rhetorical trick. (a) Start with false modesty, 'maybe it's my fault I didn't understand it', (b) then flamboyantly make a superhuman effort to penetrate its mysteries (which means boiling down the play to some untheatrically abstract truism), (c) and then 'reveal' that it's untheatrical, abstract, and truistic. Because what is A Number trying to express? Why, ‘the victory of the human spirit over all scientific odds,’ announces Sherry portentously, before adding, ‘but I still think this debate might have worked better in a television studio or a science faculty’.

25 November 2002: He’s not enjoyed Shelagh Stephenson’s Mappa Mundi, and once again it’s the ideas thing. ‘Stephenson tries to involve us here in such wider issues as quantum mechanics and parallel universes, but the characters can’t quite stand the weight, and inevitably one begins to think how much better this was done by Arthur Miller in plays such as The Price and Death of a Salesman.’ Sheridan Morley must be a keen deconstructionist to find quantum theory in Death of a Salesman, but explaining his methods would take him into Professor of Drama territory so he keeps a wise silence.

2 December 2002: It’s his last column for a while, and keen Sherry fans will be disappointed throughout December, January and most of February to read that 'Sheridan Morley is unwell'. At least they can console themselves by reading his just-published memoirs, Asking for Trouble (Hodder & Stoughton £20), which he's struggling from his sickbed to publicise. In this last column for a while, Sherry’s proving that he'll go anywhere to seek out theatrical talent; he's just spotted a nice little show at the out-of-the-way Jermyn Street Theatre which he thinks is worth a punt. Typically modest, Sherry does not mention that he’s currently presenting a cabaret based on Asking for Trouble at a small venue where three months ago he’d also revived his nice little earner, Noel and Gertie. The venue, coincidentally, being the Jermyn Street Theatre.

the enormous and dull theatre critic Sheridan Morley17 February 2003: Refreshed and revitalised, Sheridan Morley is his old self again, reassuring us that he hasn’t wasted his time over the previous ten weeks doing any reading. Reviewing the RSC’s adaptation of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, he rightly observes, ‘Perhaps this is not a good time to admit that I’ve never managed to get through Midnight’s Children.’ But if Sherry can review plays he’s dozed through, not having read the novel shouldn’t daunt him and indeed the review soon finds him authoritatively pronouncing, ‘What made Rushdie’s novel remarkable was the flow of its language, the sweep of its ambition.’

21 April 2003: Sherry’s had a revelation! ‘Even by Chekhovian standards, Three Sisters is light on plot.’ Sensation! However, he shrewdly adds, ‘much is in fact happening (a fatal duel, a huge fire) just offstage’. Not remotely embarrassed to have only just spotted this after forty years of theatregoing, he compounds it by confessing never to have noticed that the servants have comic moments.

What’s that, Sherry? Pinter uses a lot of pauses? You don't think Godot's actually coming?

26 May 2003: Sherry’s in his stride. The new tactic, tried out on Midnight’s Children, is to be big and brazen. ‘The problem with [Lope de Vega] as a playwright, and I write with the confidence of having seen barely half a dozen of his plays, is that his dramas seem to lose the will to live somewhere around the interval.’ (‘Somewhere around the interval’, Encore would respectlessly submit, is rather better than ‘by the middle of the first column’.) In the same column, he is also keen to show that he knows nothing about popular culture. (This too was beta-tested some time ago - on 31 March, he referred to Stephen Gateley of Boyzone as a ‘Rock Star’). This time he’s been to see The Bomb-Itty of Errors; ‘idiotic title, still don’t know what it means’ barks Staff Sergeant Morley.

...And then, as if by magic, he was gone. There's no excuse for Sheridan Morley. He's got lots of experience, seen lots of theatre, got good connections in the theatre world, kept working and writing all this time, but he just can't hack it. Sherry is, to quote him on Moira Buffini's Dinner, 'a sickly stew of all the right ingredients in all the wrong combinations and well past their sell-by date.' But the truth of the matter is that a theatre critic who has failed the A-level in Caryl Churchill should go away and resit it until they pass, because if you don’t get Caryl Churchill, you don’t get anything important about British theatre today.

He lasted some ten years on the Spectator, ten months on the New Statesman. If anyone would like to join Encore in trying to get him sacked from the Express within ten weeks, you can email the paper here. Let's make it four for Sherry!

:: Theatre Worker Thursday, April 29, 2004 [+] ::

Criticwatch # 1:
Toby Young of The Spectator

Toby Young nakedIn 2001 the editor of The Spectator, Boris Johnson, took the unexpected decision to replace the magazine's veteran theatre critic, Sheridan Morley, with his old university friend, Toby Young (pictured). Young was previously most celebrated for his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, an account of his failure to pick up girls and his exasperation with American political correctness when working as an expatriate journalist in New York. None of his previous work had demonstrated any interest in theatre.

Young's appointment was roundly criticized. But Young has stolen a march on the nay-sayers: he is much, much worse than anyone could have predicted. His infantile columns, his proud ignorance, the crassness of his opinions make him laughably unsuited to this job. Suggestions for what job he would be suited to can be emailed direct to Boris Johnson.

27 October 2001: Young's first column commences propitiously with a lengthy anecdote about how he didn't know the way to the National Theatre. Once he's managed to find the place, his review of August Wilson's Jitney announces what will be his guiding critical approach from the off: "After five minutes of watching the cast go through their paces my heart sank. As a neophyte critic, I was desperately hoping that the first play I saw would be absolutely awful so I could unleash my full armory of invective - a bad review is so much easier to write." Poor lamb.

10 November 2001: This week, Young gives us a strangely lacklustre review of an RSC Merchant of Venice. Turning a few pages, his lack of critical engagement is explained in "Confessions of a Porn Addict" by Toby Young: "Last Saturday I raced back from the Barbican where I'd just been to see The Merchant of Venice ... My overriding concern was that I'd have the flat to myself to watch a programme called The Glamour Game on Men & Motors ... Each half-hour episode consists of a photo session in which a Page 3 girl is put through her paces by a glamour photographer". Encore grants that Kenneth Tynan must have found himself in the 1950s' equivalent of this situation, but he had the sense to realise that to mention it might detract from the authority of his thoughts on the play.

17 November 2001: Back at the National for the revival of 1900 Dutch naturalist masterpiece The Good Hope. It must have been rather irritating for the audience that Young "found The Good Hope so dramatically unconvincing that I had to stop myself giggling during what is supposed to be the most harrowing scene of the play." Young recommends that we stay home and watch Blind Date instead. (Unless, presumably, The Glamour Game is on.)

7 September 2002: A disappointing trip to the National Youth Theatre's revival of The Threepenny Opera leads to a reassessment of the play's classic reputation. "The story is a poor knock-off of Scarface," observes Young shrewdly. "The plot makes no sense. It reminds me of a musical that I was in at Highgate Primary School that was written by one of the teachers ... The anti-capitalist 'message' is delivered with such heavy handed didacticism I felt like whipping out my mobile on the spot and ordering a stockbroker to buy a hundred shares in IBM."
The young cast provoke even more displeasure. "It's hard to believe that this is the cream of Britain's young acting talent ... The really surprising thing is how unattractive they all are. As a critic, I've come to expect actors to be either ugly or talentless but not both ... The majority of them are overweight."

19 October 2002: The critic's bemusement at A Number inspires an implausible recommendation to Ian Rickson. "The artistic director of the Royal Court should have had the courage to send Caryl Churchill away and tell her not to come back until she had a finished piece of work."

24 May 2003: Young's tendency towards apoplexy and derision has grown as he has settled into his job. Not only can he find his way to the National, but he now has the authority to help the National find its way. After a visit to the Olivier, "I'd been reduced to a spluttering, eye-popping rage. How dare such an unpatriotic production of Henry V be staged at the Royal National Theatre, I wanted to know? You wouldn't catch the French doing anything like that. And why attack Tony Blair when Saddam Hussein was so much worse ... Heaven forbid that one of Britain's enemies should be attacked in our National Theatre rather than one of our leaders..." (The review continues in a similar vein for four paragraphs.)

31 May 2003: Toby Young's thoughts on Absolutely! (Perhaps) strike a curious note. "Apart from the play this is a perfectly decent night at the theatre", "the acting is marvellously adequate", "Joan Plowright ... is eminently passable". Are these meaningless statements, or is Young trying to capture the Pirandellian paradoxes of the evening he's just witnessed. Assuming he has seen it - he couldn't just be reviewing the title ... could he? Whatever, the question remains, how on earth did this get published?

Michael Brandon and company in Jerry Spring - The Opera, National Theatre, 2003, Photograph by Catherine Ashmore7 June 2003: Yet more fury is provoked by the National Theatre; Jerry Springer - The Opera is a kind of Protocols of the Elders of Zion for Anti-Americanism apparently, while Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah "seems designed to appeal solely to members of the Guardian-reading intelligentsia. Every scene is underscored by a kind of hand-wringing, middle-class piety and the characters appear to be created by someone who hasn't set foot in Hackney for twenty years."

21 June 2003: Once again, Nick Hytner's National Theatre has inflamed the Spectator's distinguished critic. Now he objects to having to see "54-year-old Zoe Wanamaker" in His Girl Friday. "A better name for this actress would be 'Don'twanamaker'," he concludes gallantly. This becomes the springboard for an attack on the "political correctness" that blights his enjoyment of contemporary British theatre, forcing him to look at "hideous old crones" in preference to "hot young actresses" (of the kind found, no doubt, on Granada Men & Motors's The Glamour Game). "No, when it comes to casting, if you're young, good-looking and white, it's very difficult to land a decent part on the British stage, even though nearly all the best parts were written for people exactly like you," he thunders in conclusion.

It's important to establish what is so regrettable about this column. It certainly isn't reading a right-wing or reactionary writer - a case well-argued is always worth reading. Nor is it reading a writer working from a position of complete ignorance about the theatre; if the critic were thoughtful and intelligent, this might well be fresh and fascinating, though one would expect some development of attitude after two years in the job. No, it's the sheer relentless stupidity of Toby Young's thoughts, the dismal attempts at wit, the complete lack of imagination or curiosity about either storytelling or the stories told that makes this column the most dispiriting theatrical criticism of our time.

:: Theatre Worker Tuesday, July 15, 2003 [+] ::

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