Posts tagged ‘karen fricker’

1 March, 2010

Lyn Gardner fully expects to be replaced by Katie Price

Written for The Collective Review, 1 March 2010

The national newspapers’ habit of replacing their retired head theatre critics with columnists and political sketchwriters is pretty worrying for those of us on the bottom rungs of the theatre criticism career ladder, as I pointed out in January, when The Times announced Libby Purves would be replacing Benedict Nightingale in their top spot.

Well, it turns out up-and-comers like me aren’t the only ones concerned by the trend:  some of the country’s most influential theatre critics also expressed reservations about the appointments last Friday, at Theatre Critics In The Spotlight, a panel discussion hosted by The Student Workshop of Royal Holloway, University of London (pictured).

Even before the panel hosts – Royal Holloway lecturer and Variety theatre critic Karen Fricker, and Student Workshop Creative Learning Officer Sheryl Hill – formally posed the question, panellist Mark Shenton – critic for the Sunday Express and daily blogger for The Stage – repeatedly brought up the topic.

In Shenton’s view, the trend is a cost-saving measure, symptomatic of the problems facing the newspaper and media industry as a whole.  His fellow panellist Kate Bassett, lead critic for the Independent on Sunday, pithily summarised those problems, saying, “Newspapers don’t know how to make money any more”.

Shenton explained that papers could avoid paying an extra salary by simply adding theatre criticism to the duties of an existing member of staff, adding that editors no longer consider theatre criticism to be a full-time occupation.

Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times recalled – enlighteningly, for those of us relatively new to the business – the appointment of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Portillo as theatre critic for the New Statesman, which he considers to be the beginning of the trend.  Worryingly, he also pointed out that his own promotion to lead critic at the FT is the only instance in living memory of a retiring lead critic being replaced by their number two at the same paper – most second-stringers have to defect to a different publication in order to secure a top slot.

Lyn Gardner, critic and blogger for The Guardian, concluded the discussion with this bleak yet matter-of-fact premonition of the industry’s future:  “I fully expect my job will one day be done by Katie Price”.

17 November, 2009

Public Property

Trafalgar Studios, 16 November – 5 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

At first glance, Public Property is a boilerplate Trafalgar Studio 2 production. Recognisable faces: check (Robert Daws, Nigel Harman and even Stephen Fry, phoning it in via vid-cameo). Humour that doesn’t tax the brain: check (sight gags and comic situational escalation best enjoyed after a glass of wine in the bar). Skilled but slightly overly wordy scriptwriting: check (courtesy of Sam Peter Jackson).

On closer inspection, however, this is something of a rare find: a play about three gay men in which the characters’ sexuality is almost incidental, an extra thematic layer rather than the piece’s raison d’être.

Daws is celebrated newsreader Geoffrey Hammond, who throws himself on the mercy of his ruthless publicist, Larry De Vries (Harman) after being caught by paparrazzi in flagrante delicto with 16-year-old Jamie (Steven Webb). Geoff does protest once or twice that the press wouldn’t be interested if Jamie had been a girl, but the play is more concerned with celebrity, PR and fickle public goodwill than “LGBTQ issues”. Geoff knows, despite his protestations of innocence, that this incident matters more to his reputation than any number of broadcasting gongs, and even Larry is branded repeatedly by his lowest point: the media only remembers him for being booted off the judging panel of a failed reality show.

It’s often difficult to feel any sympathy towards Geoff, who really has only his own indiscretion to blame for his downfall, but Daws does an excellent job of showing the desperation behind the bluster, and his raw vulnerability when talking to or about his offstage lover Paul provides the production’s tenderest moments. Harman is believable whether smooth-talking and in control or plain incredulous at his client’s behaviour, though he flips a little too easily between the two modes, and reacts so little to mentions of Larry’s debts and vices that they seem more a throwaway subplot than an integral part of the character’s backstory.

Jackson’s script, too, is generally sound, though a bit baggy towards the end of Act One, and overly reliant on the repeat-repeat louder-shout-shout-pause formula for writing arguments. Like most Studio 2 shows, Public Property has its flaws, but is still a satisfying enough night out; and it boasts the additional merit of sidestepping the damaging and judgmental “gay play” label which, given its premise, it could easily have been slapped with.

Written by Sam Peter Jackson

Crew includes Hanna Berrigan (director) and Helen Goddard (designer)

Cast includes Robert Daws (Geoffrey Hammond), Nigel Harman (Larry De Vries) and Steven Webb (Jamie Sullivan)

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14 January, 2009

Roaring Trade

Soho Theatre, 7 January – 7 February 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In Roaring Trade at the Soho Theatre, playwright Steve Thompson takes the risky stance of apologist for the short sellers, lifting the lid on the cutthroat culture of high-risk bond trading. The pressure to make millions or lose your job on the spot tends to encourage certain personality traits; the play’s central characters are four traders at McSorley’s, “second largest bank in the square mile,” and each is, in his or her own unique way, a complete screw-up.

Donny (Andrew Scott) is a gambler, responding to catastrophic losses by taking ever greater risks. When it’s his turn to see his ten-year-old son Sean (Jack O’Connor), all he can talk about is money markets. Jess (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) isn’t above flirting with clients to seal a deal. PJ (Nicolas Tennant) wants out, but his wife Sandy (Susan Vidler) has already spent his next five years’ bonuses in her head. And as for new boy Spoon (Christian Roe)…

The foursome – nominally a ‘team’ – compete viciously for profits in Kandis Cook’s Spartan office space. The same desks and swivel chairs become restaurants and living rooms; even on their own time, these people exist in the office. Under IT Designer Matt Kirby’s control, the same flatscreens that display market statistics (constantly flickering and updating) also suggest wallpaper or graduation photos.

The characters’ skyscraping egos demand surefooted performances, and under Roxana Silbert’s direction, the whole cast delivers with confidence and flair.

The race for the biggest bonus is just the respectable front for any number of other, more personal conflicts. The quickfire, often comic dialogue crackles throughout with phallic imagery – bonus size equals penis size; the pub after work is “a willy-measuring contest” – so Jess, the only trader lacking a phallus, has to fight to become more than just another measure of success for her male colleagues.

But the play’s centrepiece is actually a class conflict: slack-jawed bootstrapper Donny versus Cambridge graduate Spoon (named by Donny – “Silver Spoon, born with, in your trap”). Disguised as a simple clash of personalities, the issue nevertheless simmers underneath their escalating one-upmanship, never fully acknowledged but erupting in moments of passion.

It’s these conflicts bubbling away in the subtext that allow Roaring Trade to transcend its context. It is not a play ‘about’ the credit crunch. The money markets are simply a topical backdrop in which enormous egos are placed under enormous pressure, and consequently emotions are concentrated and conflicts magnified. Roaring Trade is an outstanding piece of straight theatre – regardless of its relevance to current affairs.

Written by Steve Thompson

Crew includes Roxana Silbert, Director; Kandis Cook, Designer; Matt Kirby, IT and Media Designer; Wolfgang Goebbel, Lighting Designer; Matt McKenzie, Sound Designer

Cast includes Jack O’Connor, Sean; Christian Roe, Spoon; Andrew Scott, Donny; Nicolas Tennant, PJ; Susan Vidler, Sandy; Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jess

Need a second opinion?

2 December, 2008

Brickbats in Cyberspace

Written for the London Theatre Blog

Modern theatre criticism has problems, and those problems are generational in nature. That’s the one overriding conclusion with which I left the Royal Court after Brickbats in Cyberspace, in which a panel of theatre critics, bloggers and theatre practitioners convened to discuss the effect of the Internet, and specifically blogging, on modern theatre journalism.

There are very few professional theatre critics in the UK, by which I mean people that earn a living from theatre criticism alone. Of those few, the vast majority are of what most people like to call ‘a certain age’. I knew this before attending the discussion; as a young person working in the field of arts journalism, it has a direct effect on my life. What I hadn’t considered was the effect it has on the evolution of theatre journalism as a form.

The small cadre of professional critics was represented on the panel by Charles Spencer, lead critic for the Telegraph. From the off, Spencer declared himself openly hostile towards theatre bloggers. He accused the blogosphere of watering down critical discourse with a morass of uninformed opinion, and claimed that same morass would soon put him and his colleagues out of their jobs.

Spencer labelled his hostility “a generational problem”, and admitted that he simply didn’t like computers and technology. He also labelled himself “the last of the Luddites”; unfortunately, this epithet is not as accurate. His contemporaries are, if anything, older and more set in their ways than he is. Which means the most powerful portion of the critical establishment wants nothing to do with new media.

How is criticism supposed to evolve and find a place in the media as it exists today, if its biggest names think blogging is the enemy?

Not everyone in the industry is resistant to the change new media offers. Andrew Dickson, arts editor for the Guardian Online, was also a panellist. The Guardian have been quicker than their competitors to embrace online content. But the publication still follows the formats and processes of print journalism. Dickson commissions reviews, blog posts and podcasts or videos in the same way as his print counterparts.

No one has yet fully grasped the potential of new media. No one has fully exploited the combined power of online journalism, podcasting, social networking and mobile synchronisation. I still structure my reviews for London Theatre Blog the same way I would for a print publication. But if the critical community is held back by an older generation with a lot of clout and no love for web 2.0, by the time we get there technology will have moved ahead of us again.

In some ways perhaps it already has. Wired magazine declared the death of blogging in October, and the theatre industry still has yet to fully acknowledge its legitimacy. Whether or not the problem is generational, there is indisputably a problem: technology moves fast, and we’re being left behind.

Also covered for the British Theatre Guide

The role of the blogger in theatre criticism was given some long overdue scrutiny in this panel discussion, held at the Royal Court on 1st December, 2008. The event’s audio was broadcast live online; an archive can be found here.

Chaired by Karen Fricker, Variety critic and lecturer in Theatre Criticism, the panel included Charles Spencer, lead critic for the Daily Telegraph; Andrew Dickson, arts editor of guardian.co.uk; Judith Dimant, producer for Complicite; and a rare public appearance by well-known theatre bloggers the West End Whingers.

The discussion sought to explore the relationship between professional print journalism and online content, as well as the reasons why bloggers blog and the opportunities for greater integration in the future.

Spencer singled himself out early on by declaring a simple dislike for new technology and voicing concerns that free online content could soon lead to job losses for broadsheet theatre critics like himself.

Dickson took the opposite stance, challenging the notion of a “battle” between print and online media. Though he agreed that print publications are foolish to consider further culling the small field of newspaper critics, he denied that blogging is to blame for the trend.

Throughout the debate, Dickson and Spencer remained opposed to one another, perhaps confirming an assertion of Spencer’s that hostility towards blogging is “a generational problem”. The majority of high-profile broadsheet critics are of a certain age, and are wary of new technological developments simply because they cannot understand them.

Lead Financial Times critic and avid blog commenter Ian Shuttleworth, contributing from the floor, summed up the situation: “It’s a great time to be a writer; it’s a lousy time to be a professional writer.”

Providing practice and exposure for aspiring writers incapable of elbowing into the tight-knit world of print criticism was suggested as one major advantage of blogging.

Spencer disputed whether this open floodgate could be seen as an advantage, bemoaning a continuing downward trend in the quality of written English. He cited the famously eloquent notices of Clive James and Kenneth Tynan as evidence of quality now long lost.

But Shuttleworth argued that bloggers are actually filling a quality vacuum left by newspaper critics hired more for their famous names than for any critical prowess. British Theatre Guide London editor Philip Fisher also pointed out that the best writers will naturally be read the most in any medium. Dickson agreed, saying that, online as in print, there are both good and bad writers; the bad ones are not necessarily confined to the Internet.

Another advantage of blogging – one that complements professional journalism instead of competing with it – is the similarity of the blogger’s experience to the average theatregoer’s, claimed the West End Whingers.

Neither Whinger harbours aspirations to professional criticism. They have day jobs, buy their own tickets and are not guaranteed the best seats. This, they said, allows them a perspective denied the professional press, who are traditionally granted complimentary seats in the most expensive area of the house.

Precisely because they pay, the Whingers feel justified in criticising contextual aspects of the experience not usually mentioned by mainstream critics, including bar prices and squeaky seats.

The potential for members of the public to comment on blogs and thus enhance a show’s word of mouth appeal was also raised, by Judith Dimant.

Complicite have experienced the power of online hype first-hand. Dimant attributed an unexpected sell-out run in Michigan, where the company is not well known, entirely to a popular blog post published on opening night.

The panel offered various explanations for the popularity of theatre blogging as a form of expression, including dissatisfaction with print criticism, a desire to vent personal opinions, and self-promotion (or, as the Whingers put it, “attention seeking”).

Looking to the future, Spencer remained convinced that blogging will signal the death of the professional critic and potentially of paid journalism in its entirety. Dickson and Dimant were more optimistic, foreseeing greater interaction between old and new media as editors and theatre companies eventually discover the merits of online content.

One contributor from the floor suggested that web journalism is in need of a philanthropic cash injection, similar to the Trust that funds guardian.co.uk, if it is to survive as a profession and not simply as a sideline or supplementary income.

One point the panel agreed on was that online journalism has not yet fully evolved. New developments are constantly being made; Twitter is already being proclaimed the successor to blogging. Both the theatre and newspaper industries need to adapt more quickly to new advances in order to exploit their full potential.

Print media and blogging were discussed so extensively that there was little time to mention middle ground publications like the British Theatre Guide. Not affiliated to any print publication, but edited to a professional standard and complying with the standards of print journalism, such outlets cannot be defined either as blogs or as professional (i.e. paid) journalism.

Perhaps incorporating elements from both ends of the spectrum will ensure that websites like this one survive as a happy medium. On the other hand, perhaps Twitter is the future, and clinging to outdated standards of quality will ensure a swift demise. The real outcome probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, but if technology continues to evolve at its current pace, it won’t be long before we find out.

Need a second opinion?

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