Pipe Dream

Kieran Brown and Charlotte Scott in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Pipe Dream currently playing at the Union Theatre. Southwark. No complaints about their diction when singing, proof that it is possible to sing and be understood. © Kay Young Photography

The Critics Circle

Dangle and Sneer

The critics who tell it like it is

By Dangle and Sneer of course

Published: 04/03/2012

The Sounds of Music

Why is it that drama schools teach singing so badly? Partlyto blame is that fact that nobody in the musical theatre these days actuallysings with their real singing voice. They use the sound system. When it breaksdown you cannot hear them. And they cannot rise to the occasion and fill theauditorium, not an impossible task in most fringe venues and possibly not
impossible in most theatres with decent acoustics either.  But not having the ability to project is one thing, not being able to articulate the words is another.

 Swallowing them so that the lyrics are indecipherable is a crime. It is not one the great ladies or men of musical theatrecommitted, but most of them date from the days when at best there would be some microphones along the footlights. Maybe they do teach them how to use the sound systems – no musical these days opens without
one – but they should be able to teach them how to articulate the words theare singing. The evidence is everywhere that this does not happen. Maybe John Hanson was to acting as a block of wood is to a pile of cement, but the man had
a voice which did justice to the words and music. So had Merman, Kirkwood, Martin, Keel  - the list is endless. Musicals are everywhere on London’s fringe with casts mostly fresh out of drama school. It is experience. They have
talent. But their training leaves something to be desired. They are not up to the demands of the genre in which they are performing. Maybe we need surtitles. It lets lots of opera singers off the hook when it comes to the words, but at
least they make the right sounds – most of the time. That isn’t even always true of singing actors.

 Sitting Pretty?

Are you sitting comfortably? Of course not. London’s theatres are a disgrace. Admittedly some of them have seen better days, but some have been refurbished in some style – at least as far as the foyers are concerned. The seating in the Palladium is a terrible, and for some reason in the stalls the habit adopted somewhere of placing the rows so that one looks between the two people in front of you and not overt he head of the person directly in front exists. Naturally one gets Mr six foot seven with a bouffant hairdo, or his female equivalent in the seat in front. And yet some theatres have the cheek to charge a levy for improvements on top of the prices they charge anyway, although these days, what with all the deals around does anyone except hapless tourists actually pay the full whack?

 Will anybody do anything about it?Probably not. Betjeman could have included a few more targets than Slough for those German bombs. The worst offender is arguably the greatest theatre designer of them all - Frank Machin. But his theatres are listed and changes are not allowed. You try the gorgeous Hackney Empire and see another example of having to peer round some totem pole to see the stage. On the other hand one does wonder why people who are vertically disabled should not sit at the side and think about the rest of us. But you needn't expect critics to worry. We always get good seats. Read someone the other day praising the pain in the eyes of Tamara Rojo, the ballerina, dancing Marguerite, the lady of the Camelias. Well she might have seen the pain in Tamara's eyes, but Dangle was sitting in the amphitheatre at Covent Garden, not being a dance critic, and from there one is  lucky to make out the people on the stage have eyes, let alone see what is in them.


The Best of British

The Circle’s Film Awards at the Mayfair Hotel could be called the night of a thousand no shows – weather, flu and residence in foreign parts meant that the winners stepping up in person to accept were few and far between. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter because there to accept the Dilys Powell Award for excellence in film, the Film section’s highest award named after the late Sunday Times film critic, was Helena Bonham Carter. She came, she stayed, she held court. It was not her first time at our Film awards – she was once the recipient of the Best British actress award, an event still remembered by the Film section chairman of the day, John Marriott who, calling her to the rostrum, invited her to accept the Breast British Actress Award. And yes, she remembers it well. She also told us that they are bigger now than they were then.

The Miller's Tale

English National Opera was once a happy home for Jonathan Miller, so we were not surprised to see him in the foyer the other Saturday when his production of The Mikado was being revived for the umpteenth time. It is one of ENO’s cash cows. The gathering matinee  throng were delighted to see the great man and he was much chatted to, including by Dangle, or possibly Sneer, who saw him approach the Friends’ Desk. He was not, we suggested, likely to be seeking to become a Friend. He agreed. he was just being friendly. He was not, it seemed, in favour with “that twerp upstairs.” Nor had he ever made a penny out of the production. It seems in the arts world you do not thrive as others have done in the commercial world from the likes of Les Miserables. But there were lots of operas he would still like to do at 79. And we could quote him about the twerp. Miller was in jovial mood, there to take his grand daughter to see the show. On sale at the programme desk was Drama section member Kate Bassett’s biography – alas Dangle and Sneer did not have a copy – Dangle has it already, Sneer was, like most critics, financially embarrassed. But it would make a good Christmas gift.

Come of it Kim

The contents of those potted biographies in theatre programmes are always highly suspect to say the least. For a start, has anybody ever seen any of the films that the authors list – unless they are terribly well known and have dual stage and screen career? But it is not so much what they put in as what they leave out. Take Kim Cattrall, for instance. It was Sex and the City which made her a TV star, and since that ended she has been trying to establish herself as an actress of substance, notably most recently appearing as Cleopatra at Chichester in a Janet Suzman production of Anthony and Cleopatra which started life at the Liverpool Playhouse. All credit to the lady. In the programme she lists her films, but oddly not the most famous of the lot. Anyone would be excused for not remembering Mannequin, Star Trek V1, Bonfire of the Vanities and Trouble in Little China, but who has not seen – and enjoyed – the 1984 comedy Police Academy in which she played Steve Guttenberg’s girlfriend? She appeared in none of the sequels, perhaps wisely as the series did, like all series, go downhill, but to leave it out of one’s resume is really strange. Even Maggie Smith stooped to playing stooge to Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act.


Once More With Feeling

There are times one wonders at what prompts directors to stage certain shows. The Open Air Theatre, which has enjoyed success over the years under successive directors with its musicals, has decided to stage The Sound of Music next year. It may be loved as a film, but as a stage show it has been revived recently and there are many other musicals lost to the public which might benefit from being rediscovered. But then Timothy Sheader chose to stage Ragtime this year, a show which has no resonances for British audiences – most of the real life people are people the sort of people who go to musicals have never heard of. The post war Vivien Ellis musicals ran quite successfully, and while their books might need to be “fixed” that is the case with an awful lot of musicals. So why not The Water Gypsies, Big Ben or Tough at the Top? The songs are good. Or why not try and do something like Pacific 1860, the Noel Coward show which reopened Drury Lane after the war. The score has loads of good songs and the fact that it was not a hit had more to do with the descent on London of the great Broadway shows of the time. Maybe those who hold the rights say no. But has anybody asked? The pint sized Finborough tried Novello’s Gay’s the Word this year and didn’t quite succeed – but it has a charming score, a dreadful book and demands, what the British musical theatre does not currently have, a funny leading lady star. And while we are on about thoroughly unnecessary revivals, the Palladium is giving us next year that sickly hymn to Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line in which the cast do turns revealing their deep insecurities. Mind you it has to be better than Tommy Steel as Scrooge – to appreciate the full horror Mr Steel in his prime get Finian’s Rainbow, Fred Astaire’s last movie. His performance, a frenzied melange of teeth and tics, sank the movie and his putative Hollywood career. There are some small mercies in this life we suppose.

The Sound of Dissent

There are times one wonders at what prompts directors to stage certain shows. The Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, which has enjoyed success over the years under successive directors with its musicals, has decided to stage The Sound of Music next year. It may be loved as a film, but as a stage show it has been revived at the Palladium within living memory and there are many other musicals lost to the public which would benefit from being rediscovered. The post war Vivien Ellis musicals all ran quite successfully, and while their books might need to be “fixed” that is the case with an awful lot of musicals. So why not The Water Gypsies or London Town? Or why not try and do something with Pacific 1860, the Noel Coward show which reopened Drury Lane after the war? The score has loads of good songs and the fact that it was not a hit had more to do with the descent on London of the great Broadway shows of the time and its slightly old fashioned style - which would not be a factor today. And while we are on about thoroughly unnecessary revivals, the Palladium is giving us next year that sickly hymn to Broadway gypsies, A Chorus Line in which the cast do turns revealing their deep insecurities. Mind you it has to be better than Tommy Steel as Scrooge which will precede it – to appreciate the full horror Mr Steel in his prime get Finian’s Rainbow, Fred Astaire’s last movie. Steel's performance, a frenzied melange of teeth and tics, sinks the show.


More Blood

At last another of the long running musicals is coming off. After 22 years Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, a tale about twins separated at birth loosely based on the plot of the Corsican Brothers will quit the Phoenix where it has been playing since 1991, having transferred from the Alberry where it opened in 1988. It was the second time in the West End because the show, which started off in Liverpool, had a short run at the Lyic  in 1983 starring Barbara Dixon as the mother minus a son. It won an Olivier for best musical and then went on tour before coming back and staying put. Blood Brothers is the third longest running musical in the history of the West End and the mother has been played by a succession of singers Stephanie Lawrence, Kiki Dee, Lyn Paul, Melanie Chisholm, Marti Webb and Maureen Nolan among them. In 1993 it opened on Broadway and ran for 844 performances. Over the years it acquired a cult following and audiences ritually rose to their feet at the end to give it a standing ovation. One is always sad to lose a show, but to quote the old song – “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.” Apart from anything else it will let people see what the Phoenix Theatre looks like again.

Razzle-Dazzle dies - not a day too soon

Let joy be unconfined. Chicago is finally coming off after a fifteen year run in the West End. One can only hope it is a sign of things to come and Blood Brothers, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera will soon go the same way hotly followed by Jersey Boys and all those other shows that have been preventing one visiting perfectly decent theatres and denying all sorts of fine shows out of a home. It has a good score, but when it was staged as a book show  with Elizabeth Seal way back whenever it sank rapidly. The thing that turned it into a hit – it has run for sixteen years on Broadway – was to stage it as a kind of concert performance. Bur enough is enough. Once the original stars had gone the producers brought in a succession of wannabees, hasbeens and never will bees, TV faces and film stars whose careers are over to play the leading roles, replying on the dancers to keep Bob Fosse’s choreography re-interpreted by Anne Reinking fresh and the “names” to pull in the punters happy to see a telly face in the flesh.  It has taken more than £120 million at the box office and played at three different theatres – the Adelphi, the Cambridge and the Garrick. John Kander, who composed the score, said it had been a great experience, and the fact that the London audience had embraced the show for fifteen years filled him with gratitude and pride. Well he would, wouldn’t he? Latest face to join the show is Robin Cousins the ice skater who will play the lawyer Billy Flynn. Let us hope he can sing. Not that this has stopped some of those who have played the role in the past. Heaven knows David Hasselhoff has played the part,  and so, most bizarrely, did Sacha Distel.

The Elephants' Graveyard

Have you ever wondered where old films go to die – the BFI Southbank and the shelves of Amazon apart. The answer is on South American television. That is where you see the films the stars made when it was a case of  taking the money and running, knowing, as the more honest of them would admit, that the wretched thing would probably never see the light of day or be seen only by a handful of people so it didn’t matter that it was rubbish. It paid the rent. Their career would not be damaged. Alas, they did not count on television showing films they would prefer to forget - over and over again –  not just the bad ones, but films which showed how beautiful they were when they were young. The really lucky star grows old in front of the camera and audiences forget how beautiful they once were because the ageing process takes place before their eyes.  It works for most men – and a few women. The sad among the latter strive to stay young in front of the camera playing the kind of roles that made them famous, their faces ever more rigid with Botox. You know who they are.


What can we do about Kevin? 

The great Mr Spacey, lord of the Old Vic, was sounding off the other day about the price of tickets in the West End. Fair enough. There is also said to be some trepidation among the managements at the state of business and a fear that come the Olympics it will slump. Whether this is because they do not think those who go to athletic events also go to musicals, or whether they think that, having been ripped off in Stratford and elsewhere the punters have nothing left to get ripped off with in the West End is anybody’s guess. But to Kevin. The other day we went to his theatre to see the Duchess of Malfi – nice production, great leading lady. We sat, as is our wont, in the Lilian Baylis Circle, their euphemism for the Gods, but still the acoustics are fine and the sight lines impeccable. The ticket cost £29, which seemed fair enough except that when we looked at it the face value was £22.50, the balance being made up of a booking fee and possibly, although it does not say so, one of those restoration levies. We had, of course, bought it on line. This is daylight robbery – the Royal Court only charges 50p for on line bookings. So Kevin why not put your money where your mouth is. That way we won’t crack the one about a waste of Spacey.

Are we past our sell by date?

Is there any point in people like us? It is a question posed by Jason Solomons, currently chair of our Film section, in his Trailer Trash column in The Observer. He notes that the posters for The Best Exitic Marigold Hotel (a film which stars a bevy of thespian national tresures including  Dames Judi and Maggie and Woman in Black (starring a very small man claiming unconvincingly to be the father of a four year old) do not feature the opinions of critics but quotes from members of the audience. "British film at its best...a joy to watch....film of the year" were words that apparently appeared on the Marigold's Facebook site. Audiences also adored Woman in Black making it the most successful British horror film for 20 years, while Marigold over took it at the box office with takings of some £5m - all achieved without the help of critics whose views on both films were somewhat less than enthuisiastic.

Is this the death of critics, Jason asks? Then he begs to differ, saying what it does is force propert film scribes to sharpen their writingg amd stick to their opinions.

He has a point. Critics have to be worth reading. It is also arguable that their standing would be higher if some, no names not pack drill, refused to pen words designed to  appear on posters - employers love this - and also rejected the practice of awarding stars, one of the more meaningless exercises ever devised, but loved by publicists. It saves space and looks impressive but is meaningless and cartainly not criticism. The thing to do is read the small print below the stars, see who awarded them and draw your own conclusions.

As to the end of critics - well this is the age of the instant opinion so perhaps we just have to live with those who twit and blog and hope to survive.

3D or not 3D

One does wonder why the Royal Opera House for its second film in3D opted for the Moshe Leiser/Patrice Caurier production of Madame Butterfly even if it is the most popular of all operas. Their first venture was with Carmen in a Francesca Zimballa production which on stage was pretty run of the mill, even although their was the delight of watching a patently scared out of his wits Escamillo riding a real horse to the bullfight. But the 3D camera took one into the thick of the action on stage and transformed the whole experience. Butterfly, however, has been given a very stark settin and the opera is essentially a series of dialogues between Butterfly and the other characters. There is nothing for the 3D camera to do. The score sounds splendid, Lipin Zhang is a superb heroine, James Valenti, the faithless Pinkerton, suitably dashing and Anthony Michaels Moore is in fine voice as Sharpless, the American consult left to pick up the pieces. The director of the film, Julian Napier, has done a workmanlike job given essentially unsuitable material.

3D gets used by Hollywood mainly to enhance sword, sorcery and Greek myth blockbusters, but these opera films show that it is worth more than being squandered on trivia. In the case of opera it removes the barriers created by the orchestra pit and the proscenium arch.


Enquiries about the Critics' Circle should be made to the Hon Gen Sec Rick Jones by email criticscircleallsections@gmail.com or telephone 020 8698 2460. 


The Critics’ Circle is the oldest organisation of its kind in the world and to date has over 500 members who work in the media through the United Kingdom. It is not a trade union but a professional association of critics of drama, art and architecture, music, the cinema, dance and books. As such it has no power but plenty of prestige and not a little influence. Its objects are to promote the arts of criticism and to upholds its integrity in practice, to foster and safeguard the interests of its members, to provide opportunities for social intercourse among them, and to support the advancement of the arts, Admission to membership is by invitation of the Council, who in assessing the qualifications of a candidate are influenced though not bound by the recommendations of the Circle’s competent Sections.

    In 1907 a Society of Dramatic Critics was formed. Among those present at its inaugural dinner held in Romano's restaurant were A B Walkley in the chair, J T Grein and John Parker. By 1913 the society had become inactive although there had been an attempt by Richard Northcott to prepare the ground for the creation of a Critics’ Circle. Then Sir Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, and President of the Institute of Journalists, suggested to his dramatic critic S R Littlewood that critics might with advantage be organised in a new body under the auspices of the Institute. Littlewood put the proposal to Grein, and he, with Parker in support, was enthusiastic, meetings were convened and the Critics’ Circle was born. At it first general meeting in the Hall of the Institute of Journalists Jack Grein took the stage and said – “Well, gentlemen, here we are! Let us do something. I propose that we begin by electing William Archer to the chair.” Archer then became president and Littlewood its Honorary Secretary to be succeeded in 1925 by Parker, who remained in that office until his death in 1952. In 1913 he had just finished the first edition of his now famous Who’s Who in the Theatre.

    Music as well as drama critics were declared eligible for membership of the Circle, and indeed the very first notice to be written by a member was of a pianoforte recital at the Queen’s Hall, to be followed a few nights later by the first play to be covered, George Alexander’s last revival, starring Mrs. Patrick Campbell and himself, of The Second Mrs Tanqueray, In those early days the Circle’s meetings were held in the hall of the Institute of Journalists in Tudor Street. The annual subscription was five shillings. Today it is £25.

    With the three founders being drama critics it was perhaps natural, if a little unkind, that the music members were styled the Music Committee (created in 1918 with Herman Klein as its chairman) whereas the drama representatives were named members, an anomaly not put right until many years later, In 1916 women were admitted to membership, The first lady members were Mrs Mabel Koopman who wrote for The Era and Mrs Cora Lawrence who wrote for Town Topics.

     In the following year a List of Members was issued (there were 80) with a foreword stating that the circle had been able to mediate successfully in several cases of differences of opinion between individual critics and theatrical managers and concert directors. In 1917 representations were made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding exemption of tax on Press Tickets, thanks to the support of an MP and the Institute of Journalists. This was the forerunner of many such intercessions, one of the most notable being the case of E Arnot Robertson, a film critic, who in 1948 brought an action for libel and slander against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and was awarded £1500 damages and costs. This judgement was reversed on appeal, and again on a further appeal to the House of Lords. The total cost to Miss Robertson was over £8000, but the Circle raised the money from it own funds, from individual members, and from the public.

    Another feature of the Circle’s activities was its annual dinner. Guests at these functions have embraced practically every leading practitioner of the performing arts – except Sir Thomas Beecham and Peter Sellers, both of whom accepted but did not turn up, In 1922 at the dinner held at the Savoy Hotel with Walkley in the chair one of the guests was Sir James Barrie, who dispensed with such formalities as “Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,” and began his speech -  “Scum. Critics to the right of him, critics to the left of him, critics upper entrance at the back leading to conservatory, critics downstage centre, into that Circle someone has blundered.”

   The chairman at these dinners was always the current president of the Circle, many of them have been celebrities in themselves. By this time membership of the Circle and risen to 100 and in 1924 the annual dinner was attended by 70 members.

    At another dinner in 1936 Sir Seymour Hicks presented to the Circle one of his most treasured possessions, Charles Dickens’ crystal drinking goblet, asking that it be used by the President “on all high occasions.” The goblet had been given to Hicks in 1901 by Dickens’ daughter Mrs Hogarth. It is still used “on all high occasions” notably at the annual lunch when the Circle's award for Services to the Arts is presented.

    At  the 1925 Theatrical Garden Party, then an annual event in aid of the Actors’ Orphanage, the attractions  included a short play written for the occasion by Ivor Brown with prologue spoken by Charles Morgan. The cast were all drama members of the Circle and notices appeared in the next day’s papers written by Seymour Hicks, George Grossmith, Evelyn Laye, Madge Titheradge, Gertrude Elliott and Lady Diana Manners, who all presented their fees to the charity. The dinner of that year was reported in the Daily Chronicle by James Agate.

    Film critics became eligible for membership of the Circle in 1926. Among the first was Iris Barry, then the film editor of The Daily Mail, who subsequently moved to America where she founded the film department of the Museum of modern Art and later became a curator. A year later in 1927 art critics were invited to become members, but this never really took off. (It was not until 2007 that an Art and Architecture section came to fruition). Critics of Ballet, subsequently renamed Dance, joined in 1951.

    In 1940 the designations Music Committee and Film Committee were at last abandoned and the three categories became the Drama, Music and Film Sections with a degree of individual powers, provided that their proceedings were reported to the main Council. A Television and Radio Section was inaugurated in 1971 – Broadcasting critics had been allowed in since 1924 – but this was abandoned a few years later because of the formation of the Broadcasting Press Guild.

    For many years the Circle held out against granting of awards, on the ground that criticism is essentially a matter of personal opinion and judgement and that any collective pronouncements are therefore worthless, since minority views would not be represented. Every individual favourable notice, it was argued, was an award in itself. This was upheld by a small majority in a 1956 referendum, though only some 20 per cent of members voted. However, this decision was reversed by a further referendum in 1980. The Film Section was first off the mark in organising awards which in the last few years have grown to the extent that they are now staged in a large West End hotel in aid of charity, attracting many celebrities from the industry, and being accepted as an extremely prestigious honour. The Drama Section Awards are deliberately more informal being presented by the critics themselves at a lunchtime gathering, which ensures that a high proportion of the winners are present. The Dance awards, known as the National Dance Awards since they are the only awards for dance in this country, were inaugurated in 2000. They have achieved considerable recognition in the dance world both in the UK and abroad. 

In 2011 the Music Section and Visual Arts Section presented their first awards, thus completing awards from all sections of the Circle.  The Music Section gave three awards for Exceptional Young Talent and one award for the Outstanding Musician.  The awards were presented to the winnners at events where they were performing thus receiving public recognition as well.  The Visual Arts Section first award went to an architect and an award in the form of a trophy created by a student at the Royal College of Art was gvien at an informal ceremony in London.

    Since 1968 the Circle as a whole has presented a special award to honour those who have rendered long and distinguished service to the arts. This now takes the form of a luncheon to which the winner is invited. The first recipient was Sir Peter Hall, the most recent being Peter Brook. Others to whom the award has been presented are Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Michael Tippet, Paul Scofield, Sir David Lean, Sir John Mills, Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir John Drummond, Sir Peter Wright, Sir Richard Eyre, Dame Judi Dench, Alfred Brendel, Sir Edward Downes, Harold Pinter, Dame Alicia Markova, Sir Ian McKellen, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Tom Stoppard.



The Archive

Ten boxes of old letters, press cuttings, menus and membership books of the Criics Circle since its beginnings on the eve of the First World War are kept in a temperature controlled barn belonging to the Museum of Theatre History in Bristol. Nothing of ours is on display in the rather limited space, but that is not to say the contents lack entertainment value. The type-written correspondence with Peter Sellers gives away his panic on the day of the Circle dinner, for instance. At least he sent a note. Beecham gave a few days' notice and spoke at other dinners to the one he missed. Only the time it took (9.23-9.40pm) is recorded of his 1927 oration.