Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’


A musical feast this month! The contemporary concerts started with Martha Wainwright, who had spent the last two months at her premature baby’s hospital bedside before taking time out for a couple of intimate gigs at the Jazz Café, presumably because she was a bit stir crazy and needed to remind herself what she does when not breast feeding! I’d only seen her once before – at the outset of her solo career (with the now huge James Morrison playing solo as support!) so I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which she has developed her highly original and spellbinding vocal style; it was thrilling stuff. Just a few days later her mum, Kate McGarrigle died; her music with sister Anna made me smile so much; her death made me very sad.

‘Way to Blue’ was a homage to Nick Drake who died 35 years ago leaving only three albums. His songs were interpreted by Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, The Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and the sons of Richard Thompson, Paul Simon and Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger. Names new to me were Scott Matthews, Kirsty Almeida and Krystle Warren. The terrific band was led by Kate St John and included Danny Thompson, who played on all three Drake albums. Not everything worked, but there was much to enjoy. Lisa Hannigan stole the show with a stunning re-invention of a song, Black Eyed Dog, from a fourth album released posthumously many years later.

The Beggars Opera Reborn was an ‘impulsive buy’ which turned out to be a real treat. Charles Hazelwood put together three baroque musicians with folkies The Unthanks, the guitarist from Portishead, the bassist from Goldfrapp, a saxophonist, a drummer and a singer to re-interpret songs from John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera. Often the soprano, cello and lute played the songs as intended followed immediately by a re-interpretation. A wholly original and fascinating experience.

Imagined Village is a ‘project’ originated by Simon Emmerson and involving folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood to take English folk songs and give them a world music spin. This second incarnation adds Indian instrumentation and electronica to great effect and it comes over better live than on record. An encore of Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize re-invented as an old folk song was inspired.

The idea of a concert from both the London Adventist Chorale and the Swingle Singers in the final of the 1st London A Cappella Festival really appealed to me and it turned out to be another treat. The Chorale stuck to spirituals, sung delicately rather than shouted. The Swingles moved from Corelli to The Beatles via Bach and Mozart; they’ve added pop and rock to the classical-jazz cocktail and I found the eclectic set a very satisfying combination. Both groups paired for a couple of numbers which, though enjoyable, weren’t as good as either achieved on their own.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for a recital by Russian soprano sensation Anna Netrebko & Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, part of my plan to see a bunch of world class singers this year that have passed me by now that I no longer go to Covent Garden. I felt a bit cheated; including the encores, we got 5 arias each and 2 duets with quite a bit of orchestral fillers (for those in the top seats, it came to over £8 per song!). Still, they both sang wonderfully (though the audience – containing a lot of Russians! – were a bit uncritical and over-reverential).

I seem to be on a mission to hear every English song in the classical repertoire, so I had to go to see tenor James Gilcrest’s programme of English songs by Bliss Gurney, and Vaughan Williams with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. He isn’t a great tenor but he is a good interpreter of these songs and a string quartet backing made a refreshing change from the usual solo piano.

Friends have been raving about American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato so her recital at Wigmore Hall beckoned. I wasn’t enamoured with the programme of Italian love songs, but her voice is beautiful (as is she) and she engages with the audience with a charm rarely seen in recitals. Just before she began Desdemona’s final aria from Rossini’s Otello a mobile phone rang in the audience. Quick as a flash, she said ‘It’s Otello; tell him I didn’t do it’. Priceless!


I was so taken with La Boheme at the Cock Tavern that I gave them an immediate blog entry the day after I saw the show on 10th January! A couple of days later it was another LSO opera in concert; this time Richard Strauss’ Elektra. It wasn’t up to the earlier ones steered by Sir Colin Davies, but it was still worth a visit. The main problem was that such a dramatic opera doesn’t lend itself to a concert reading as well as other operas. Add to this a huge orchestra (not hiding in a pit, like a staged production) with a ‘loud’ conductor like Gergiev and you have a tendency to drown out vocals. American Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet made up for the lack of staging by acting her angst as Elektra and Angela Denoke sang beautifully as her sister.


At first, I found the non-linear nature of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biographical film about Ian Dury, difficult to get into. It hops around rather a lot and blends bio drama with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and live performance. By the end though, it proved to be a very satisfying telling of an intriguing life.

I enjoyed Up in the Air, the style and look of which reminded me very much of Catch Me If You Can. George Clooney is a very believable outplacement consultant (who, in the US it seems, fire you as well as help you!) in love with the nomadic lifestyle and obsessed with airline, hotel and car hire loyalty programmes. Often funny, but moving and thought provoking too.

No Distance to Run starts as a record of Blur’s 2009 reunion, but becomes a much more interesting and surprisingly frank reflection on the band’s history. They each movingly give their different perspectives on the turbulence that beset the band, which makes the reunion and reconciliation all the more uplifting. The live footage proves they were the best band to emerge in the 90’s.


Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition at Gagosian proved to be just seven small new pictures, but he’s a very special artist and four of them were lovely. At Chris Beetles small gallery (two floors of each of two small terraced houses) he’d packed in three exhibitions, all of which would be worth a visit on their own. British Photographers included Parkinson, Brandt, Beaton, Snowdon and O’Neill with the famous picture of Olivier as Archie Rice no less. Quentin Blake’s book illustrations were fun, as were a collection of other British Illustrators including Heath Robinson, Bateman and many more modern.

Maharaja at the V&A was a brilliantly curated review from powerful pre-colonial Indian kings through to powerless post-colonial Western-obsessed playboys. There were gorgeous paintings, furniture, ornaments and jewellery on show – more bling than at any other exhibition I’ve seen! Also at the V&A, a fascinating exhibition of new interactive digital art called Decode enabled you to change images by speaking, ‘paint’ with your body and have your photographic image projected and changed in slow motion following your movements; a great playground for boys who like toys, so my iPhone and I interacted appropriately.

Filled a gap between work and concert with a couple of small exhibitions at the NPG. Twiggy: A Life in Photographs was lovely – she’s so photogenic and has aged so gracefully; who’d have thought? The Observer’s Jane Brown, who I first saw at Kings Place a couple of months ago, also has a small exhibition of B&W photo portraits which were just as good as the more extensive Kings Place selection.

At the newly restored Whitechapel Gallery there is an exhibition of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh over 150 years called Where Three Dreams Cross which is far more interesting than it sounds. It features images from the Maharajas and colonial times with some striking contemporary pieces. Also at the Whitechapel are selections from the British Council collection, including a piece from my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson – this one a cross-section cut from a table football table!


I wasn’t sure how to categorise Barbershopera II, but I finally decided its comedy. It’s a rambling comic story sung through unaccompanied by three actor singers with minimal props and costumes. It had its moments and I have much admiration for the performers, but at 80 minutes, I’m afraid it was an overlong sketch.


A visit with the Royal Academy Friends to Dr. Johnson’s House proved more interesting in learning about the man than the building. In a four-story town house, hidden behind Fleet Street and now surrounded by modern buildings, he compiled the first English dictionary c.250 years ago. I loved the second definition of Politician – ‘a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance’. Nothing changes.

What a busy month!

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I think it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Paul McCartney and this was amongst the best. It was a gloriously nostalgic 2 hour 50 minute set of 38 songs, including 22 Beatles songs (many which were never played live by them as they stopped touring so soon) with 23,000 people singing along. The atmosphere was electric. He made a few misjudgements (Mull of Kintyre with pipe band and Ob-la-di Ob-la-da!) but they are easily forgiven in a set that started with Magical Mystery Tour and included Drive my car, Got to get you into my life, Long and winding road, Blackbird, And I love her, Eleanor Rigby, Something, Back in the USSR, I’ve got a feeling, Paperback writer, A day in the life, Let it be, Hey Jude, Day tripper, Lady Madonna, Get back, Yesterday, Helter Skelter, ending with the Sergeant Pepper reprise / The End. There is no-one on the planet who can select a set that good. He delivers it with huge energy and warmth with just a 5-piece rock band – no dancers and no gimmicks – at 67 years of age that makes you a hero in my book.

The LSO’s concert versions of opera have become legendary, and those under Sir Colin Davies especially so. This Otello doesn’t quite match an earlier one, but it was a treat nonetheless. Though the soloists were good, it was the orchestra and chorus that were the stars.

 I’ve never been entirely comfortable listening to counter-tenors – it all seems so unnatural and you keep wanting to check you’ve still got your full equipment! – but it was a programme of mostly English songs that drew be to a recital by Bejun Mehta. Well, despite the fact that I didn’t really like the more strident Haydn and Beethoven pieces, he converted me. The two encores in particular (one hilarious and one sublime) were worth the ticket price alone.


Impropera is the operatic equivalent of comedy improvisation. As all improv, it’s hit and miss and depends entirely on that night’s ration of inspiration. It wasn’t a classic but there was much to enjoy.

Much of the very surreal Pyjama Men seemed improvised and again when it works it’s brilliant, but even when it isn’t, you have to admire the skill of these two American comedy actors. I’m not sure all of my party of six shared my enthusiasm though!


I was really disappointed in the Coen Brothers latest, A Serious Man, which seems to me to be somewhat impenetrable to a non-Jewish audience and struggles to keep your attention – I just wasn’t that interested in the main character or his story. I’m clearly out of synch with the critics who loved this and No Country for Old Men but disliked Burn After Reading; I loved the latter but found the former’s violence hard to stomach.

Nine was another big disappointment; so much talent wasted on an adaptation of a stage musical which just doesn’t work on screen. Daniel Day Lewis and Jennifer Lopez are terrific and there are fine cameos from Judi Dench and Sophia Loren, but they can’t really save what is a very dull two hours – all style, no substance.

Nowhere Boy, however, is one of the very best films of 2009 – and a debut for artist Sam Taylor-Wood too. I don’t know how speculative its exploration of John Lennon’s relationships with his mother and aunt (and the early days of his relationship with Paul McCartney) is, but it has much psychological depth and made a lot of sense to me. Anne-Marie Duff and Kirsten-Scott Thomas are both superb and Aaron Johnson makes a charismatic and passionate young Lennon. As much as I admired his performance, I think the casting of Thomas Sangster is a bit of a cheap trick to heighten the coolness of John – the films one flaw.


Stood up by a client stranded with train problems, I caught up with the current exhibitions at Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall installation by Miroslaw Balka is a giant two-story high container which you walk into up a ramp. You lose the light and seem to be walking into nothingness, but if you turn around you can clearly see where you’ve come from; extraordinary. Pop Life tells the tale of pop art from Warhol onwards. Looking back at the early stuff, it all seems rather cheap and tacky and one wonders what all the fuss was about. The highlight was the final room of recent highly detailed Japanese kitsch by Takashi Murakami. I was surprised by how much John Baldessari grew on me as I moved through the exhibition; I think it was the sense of almost obsessive experimentation which appealed – how he keeps moving on after exhausting his interest in producing different versions of the latest thing.

The National Gallery has an installation called The Hoerengracht by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz which is a recreation of the Amsterdam red light district; I’m afraid it all seemed very old hat to me. At the Royal Academy’s outpost at Burlington Gardens, an exhibition called Earth presents work by 35 contemporary artists as a response to climate change. It’s the usual hit-and-miss affair, but there is enough fascinating work to make it well worth the visit. In the same building, an exhibition of work made from abandoned / found objects by Stuart Haygarth is a wacky treat – chandeliers made from the arms of spectacles, table lamps from china cats, and a globe from car wing mirrors – great fun.

Turner & the Masters is a brilliantly curated exhibition which explores the influences of Turner and the paintings executed in homage to them. If an artist worked like that today, they’d be accused of plagiarism, but 200 years ago it was a very different thing. After being told it’s the best for years, The Turner Prize shortlist exhibition, also at Tate Britain, disappointed – probably because it doesn’t do justice to some of the artists – particularly Roger Hiorns, whose Seizure, a flat filled with copper sulphate solution then drained to leave a deep blue crystal interior, was one of my artistic highlights of last year.

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Three nights after the Last Night of the Proms, the Last Night of the Poms was a huge disappointment – which surprised me as I had so enjoyed its first outing 27 years ago! After all too brief introductions, both Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage launch into musical pieces – in the former’s case it’s an Aussie Peter & The Wolf and in Dame Edna’s case it’s a cantata for Australia. Seriously unfunny, I’m afraid.

I thought I’d booked to see two different shows from campaigning comedian Mark Thomas this month – ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’ where he interviews bankers and politicians about the credit crunch and ‘Manifesto’ where he asks the audience in advance for manifesto points and then proceeds to discuss them on stage. As it happens, it was the Manifesto show twice in different theatres! Even though parts are the same, such as sharing with you manifesto points from previous shows together will some recent satirical stunts (like kidnapping a swindling MP’s potted Bay Tree, sending her a terrorist video and ‘assassinating’ it live on the Trafalgar Square plinth!), each audience comes up with different points so each show is different and I didn’t regret my double-booking. You end by voting on the manifesto point that your show puts forward. A hoot!

I was working in Cambridge and managed to get the last seat to see Rob Brydon. His 90 minute show is mostly made up of conversations with people at the front, a little like Dame Edna. Enjoyable enough, but in truth it’s a bit of an easy option from a man who is a character comic actor rather than a stand-up.


The Prom’s Messiah paired the Northern Sinfonia with four first class soloists and seven (yes, seven!) youth choirs. A couple of the soloists – tenor John Mark Ainsley and mezzo Patricia Bardon – had shaky starts but recovered in Parts II and III. The real star of the evening though was the chorus of c.300 who sounded so fresh and enthusiastic. My fourth and final Prom was a lunchtime one of Purcell pieces (plus Blow’s tribute on his death). The harpsichord-only pieces seemed lost in Cadogan Hall, but the vocal pieces were lovely.

The South Bank’s Bernstein project launch concert was short but huge fun – members of three orchestras, 240 piece choir, the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Folk Big Band Bellowhead, six soloists and two pipers! The Mass extracts were beautiful, the fanfares startlingly original and the whole lot doing Ode to Joy was a wonderful noise!

Another of those lovely song recitals at the Wigmore Hall, this time young tenor Andrew Kennedy and a programme of Purcell, Britten, Warlock, Barber and the world premiere of four songs set to Shakespeare sonnets by someone called Ned Rorem. They were really good and it was a shame he wasn’t there, but he is 86!

Topic records is the world’s oldest independent label and as part of their 70th birthday celebrations June Tabor gave a lovely concert of songs of the sea and sailors perfectly accompanied by piano, accordion, double bass and violin. No-one does melancholy as well as June; sad but gorgeous.


British Youth Opera put on a Rossini double-bill of rare but fun one-acters which made me wonder why opera houses continually revive the same old Rossini operas when they could try ones like these. Elena Sancho, who wowed me at the Guildhall earlier in the year, put in another fine performance and this time a young Welsh soprano called Natalya Romaniw (well, it says she’s from Morriston in the programme!) wowed me even more. You heard it here first!

Ligeti’s opera Le Grande Macabre at the ENO is an extraordinary surreal absurd fantasy, but the music is so inaccessible that’s all it is, I’m afraid. There’s little point in reading the synopsis or following the surtitles (it’s in English but even more unintelligible than usual), just gawp at the design (a woman’s body occupies and revolves on the vast stage with people coming out of every orifice and video projections onto its surface!) and try to guess which of a vast selection of percussion each sound is made by.


The problem with the Museum of Brands, Advertising  & Packaging is that it’s crammed with over 10,000 items in such a way that more is less. This makes it harder not easier to show the evolution of such things and after it became clear I couldn’t possible absorb it all, I just mooched through.

The Omega workshops were an early 20th century movement way ahead of its time. The exhibition of their work at the Courtauld Gallery was more of a display than an exhibition, but it was good to see their excellent permanent collection of impressionists and post-impressionists again.


My friend Jan invited me to a terrific evening at the British Library to hear three generations of theatre producers interviewed for their new theatre archive project. It was a fascinating insight into the producer’s role with lots of great luvvie anecdotes.

We went to five buildings at Open House this year – two re-built but still grand livery company halls (the Clothworkers and the Butchers), a learned society (Royal Astronomical Society) whose librarian banged on a lot, an extraordinary  pre-fabricated 3-story 2-bed wooden private home called Ed’s-Shed and the Olympic Park to see what they’d done since we were there a year ago. I’d been to the Clothworkers before with the Royal Academy Friends but had forgotten! The progress at the Olympic site is staggering – the stadium is at full height, you can see the shape of the Velodrome and the Aqua Centre roof is taking shape. Three years to go and I have to confess I’m excited.

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Well, it was a surreal start to the festival. I turned up at the appointed time at the Mercure Hotel for a ‘show’ by a Belgian company who had wowed last year. There were 4 others. We stood in a row, then a screen rose to reveal five others who proceeded to change places until they each chose one of us to lead away to a cubicle. Here we were asked personal questions and engaged in what can best be described as ‘speed dating’. After 10 or 15 minutes, we were led to a circle of chairs where the five ‘actors’ proceeded to share aspects of these private conversations in what seemed like group therapy. The fact that three of my fellow audience members were known to me (though we didn’t know each other) – a London fringe theatre director (who was so opinionated pre-show that I took an instant dislike to her), the theatre-director-of-the-moment and his literary collaborator – was a bit disconcerting. At the time, my view of Internal was ‘so what?’ but I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The day continued to amaze with a production of Faust in a vast shed performed by 100 Romanians. This was the main festival like it was in its hey day, putting on things only festivals can. After over an hour of stunning visual spectacle we left our seats and joined Faust in hell where there was fire, ladies copulating with pigs, dead babies being eaten, fireworks and all manner of hellishness. Back in our seats and the story concluded with Faust’s salvation. Thrilling stuff.

SATURDAY was a day of one-person shows that started with Carol Anne Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife about the women behind men of history / mythology / fiction like Eurydice, Mrs Medusa, Queen Kong (!) and Mrs Darwin  (plus a reversal in the Cray Sisters and an infamous women in Myra Hindley). They were performed superbly by Linda Marlowe and were often very funny and always entertaining. Even an unscheduled 30-minute stop for a sick audience member to be taken away by ambulance didn’t put her off (though it raised questions about the lack of first aiders in a 6-space venue!). In Morcambe, Bob Golding gives an extraordinary performance telling Eric’s life story (with Ernie played by a ventriloquist’s dummy). It was nostalgic, funny and at times deeply moving and I adored it. Eccentric Welsh comic storyteller Hugh Hughes’ show 360 wasn’t as good as his previous shows Floating (about the day when Anglesey floated off into the Atlantic!) and the Story of a Rabbit, but he’s still a one-off. The success of each show depends on the audience and ours had a few too many puzzled souls who probably thought they were going to see a stand-up and couldn’t really ‘go with the flow’.

I opted out of the audio play in headphones whilst walking through the Botanic Garden on SUNDAY morning as it was raining; instead I went to a fascinating exhibition – Spain – that combined Spanish masters like Zubaran, Murillo, El Greco and Goya with British artist ‘visitor’ impressions of Spain. There was a stunning homage to Velasquez by Millais, the only David Robert’s non-Middle East paintings I’ve ever seen, a chilling Spanish Civil War painting from Wyndham Lewis and the best El Greco’s ever! At Home With Holly was a great idea that turned out to be a big mistake. A ‘comedienne’ entertaining you in her flat, except she wasn’t at all funny and covered this up with faux eccentricity which was rather embarrassing. If I could have found a way of sneaking out (one audience member feigned illness!) I would have. There were two stunts (I think) involving an audience member texting and a visit from Health & Safely but I’m afraid they didn’t save the day. Sunday ended with a stunning recital by the world’s greatest baritone, Bryn Terfel. In a largely British programme the Schumann songs seemed out of place, but the Vaughan Williams and Finzi songs were wonderful and the closing Celtic section was a populist move that worked well. He also told a couple of great jokes!

MONDAY at noon saw us in the Barony Bar with a G&T watching Charles Bukowski’s bar room tales unfold in Grid Iron’s Barflies. The small cast were terrific, the live piano accompaniment did much to create the right atmosphere and the close proximity (within drink spilling distance!) fully engaged you with the characters. They moved from funny to sad (watching people get drunk can be so depressing) and in the end you felt you had peeped into the souls of these people and experienced a combination of empathy and revulsion. The Creole Choir from Cuba had a shaky start but it didn’t take long before their African rhythms to take you hostage. They tried to tell the story of the journey from Africa to Haiti and on to Cuba and you certainly heard the music acquire Latin rhythms as the show went on. In the end their infectious enthusiasm and charm enveloped you and you left smiling. Tondal’s Vision is a combination of (mostly medieval) polyphonic music put together by a small Croatian group of female singers to tell the tale of the brief period between life and death of the knight Tondal. It sounded beautiful but the monotony wore you down to the point where you couldn’t wait for it to end. What could have been a 20-30 minute gem became an 80-minute sentence.

TUESDAY started with our first proper Traverse play (The Traverse is one of Britain’s best theatres – on a par with the Almeida and Donmar in London), Orphans. The story of a brother and sister orphaned when their parents died in a fire and the effect of this on their lives, it had a dark brooding atmosphere and lots of twists, playwright Dennis Kelly’s trademarks. Beautifully performed and staged, I found it captivating. The Comedian’s Company was set up a few years back to stage plays largely cast from stand-ups. They had hits with Twelve Angry Men, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and Killer Joe but this year’s offering, The School for Scandal – a restoration comedy – was poorly received. I think the critics rather missed the point. It was in effect a panto, which took a lot of licence with Sheriden’s play, ad-libbing and over-acting and generally larking about. I thought it was good fun. It was worth the ticket price for a turn by Lionel Blair and black comedian Stephen K Amos in a frock coat and a powdered wig. Comedian Phil Nichol tried something different this year with an alter ego poet / singer in white suit accompanied by a pianist and double bass player. His fans seemed to find this hard to swallow, but despite it’s overly manic pace and delivery I thought it was intriguing, very rude and often very funny. The day ended with an extraordinary light and sound journey called Power Plant through the greenhouses of the Royal Botanic Garden. Some 22 artists each created pieces, from windpipes with flame jets to illuminated lily ponds to bright kaleidoscopic discs with whirring sounds. Gorgeous.

A late start on WEDNESDAY with Al Murray re-creating his alter ego The Pub Landlord’s 1996 Perrier Award winning show. I love his populist Saturday night ITV show and this had all the features of audience engagement, faux xenophobia and pub character parody. It was very funny indeed. This was followed by The Hotel, created by comedian Mark Watson, where a large New Town house has been turned into a hotel with restaurant, wellness centre, cabaret bar, business centre etc. It was bit hit-and-miss; I loved assessing job applicants in the Board Room (well, I would, wouldn’t I) and thought the Wellness Centre, Chill Out Room (with live guru!) and Cabaret Bar (with Ronnie Golden, no less) worked well, but the Processing Centre, TV Lounge and other parts worked less well and I couldn’t get into the restaurant (only after I left did I think no-one might have got into the restaurant and this was part of the joke?). I was convinced Holly from Sunday afternoon was the masseuse (she gave me a funny look) but maybe I’m being paranoid! Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria was performed by seven singers, seven instrumentalists and five puppeteers (Handspring, the company behind War Horse at the National). As much as I admired it, it didn’t really engage me – though it’s fair to say the uncomfortable seats, heat and noisy neighbour didn’t help  – and didn’t seem to tell the story particularly well. It divided the group – Jeff thought it was the highlight of the festival! The day ended back at the Traverse for a highly original show called Accidental Nostalgia which started as a Neuroscience lecture and went on to become one woman’s journey through her past to find the truth about her father’s death. At first I thought it was going to be one of those pretentious avante garde NYC pieces like the Wooster Group but it actually turned out to be enthralling. It had the most wonderful country-rock score sung and played live by a terrific four-piece band and the most innovative projections and other visuals tricks.

THURSDAY, our last day, started brilliantly back at the Traverse. Midsummer, a play with songs, is a real departure for playwright David Greig – a feelgood romantic comedy. It tells the story of a mad weekend, but what makes it a cut above the rest is clever structure, weaving back and forth and in and out with lots of clever tricks; a real treat. We followed it with a Traverse production for the main festival, The Last Witch, about – guess what? – the last witch burned in Scotland. The first half was really slow, but it picked up in the second. I think the lack of rehearsal and previews has resulted in a play that frankly isn’t ready; shame. We ended with Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert whose first 20 minutes were brilliant, but the rest of the hour was a bit patchy. He said burning smells behind the stage distracted him, but we couldn’t smell them from the third row!

Well, that’s another year – apart from Art, an above-average festival, with more variety than usual and lots of quirky one-off things, mostly successful. I’m now chilling out on the Isle of Mull off Scotland’s west coast. It’s chilly and cloudy with a lot of showers, but the seafood’s great! Until 2010 (accommodation already booked!)…..

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Only two operas and an oratorio in a musically lean two months! Dr Atomic at ENO would have been a much better opera if he’d cut it by 30 mins (especially in the more static first half). I liked the design and staging, the music is accessible and there are some very good performances (though Gerald Finley’s understudy didn’t really cut it and looked too young) but it’s a case of more is less. I saw the premiere of The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden in the 80’s, but enjoyed this revival at the wonderful Guildhall School so much more (or maybe I’ve grown into modern opera). This production seemed to lighten the fantasy and bring out the humour and the staging and performances were yet again exceptional for a conservatoire. Another conservatoire put on the hugely ambitious Britten War Requiem with considerable success. The venue was tiny so the singers and musicians outnumbered the audience but this gave this anti-war piece so much more power.

Maria Friedman’s Sondheim concert was the fourth I’ve seen by her in the last year. Her interpretations of Sondheim are as goods as any others and the selection was as inspired as the choice of cello and piano accompaniment.


I was put off Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino because I thought it was a classic revenge movie; I’m glad I gave in as it’s a lot more than that – and it may well be the last chance to see him act.

The Boat That Rocked was overlong and would have benefited from an independent director’s scrutiny. However, it was nowhere near as bad as the reviews and is worth the ticket price for the soundtrack alone.


Another dire month for ‘art’ though better for ‘other’ exhibitions. The only art exhibitions I enjoyed were Rodchenko / Popova at Tate Modern (way-ahead-of-its-time iconic design – the posters, pamphlets and other graphic designs were as captivating as the paintings), the Japanese painter /  illustrator Kyunoshi’s stunning range of work at the Royal Academy and the wonderful original artwork for London Travel Posters  at the London Transport Museum.

All of the contemporary stuff was disappointing – the middle eastern contemporaries at the Saatchi were patchy though there were a few crackers, the Annette Messager installations at the Hayward seemed to me to be the product of a disturbed mind and I found it impossible to like, and worst of all was Tate Britain’s dreadful After Modern; like walking through the cast-off’s in an art school after they’ve taken the good stuff out for an exhibition.

I’m afraid the oldies didn’t fare much better – Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition was only for those who are prepared to view room after room of lifeless nobles in their finery in preposterous over-staged poses and Constable’s portraits at the NPG were even less interesting than his biscuit-tin landscapes.

Gerard Richter’s photo-paintings at the NPG didn’t do a lot for me either, I’m afraid, though the DeutscheBank Photo Prize finalists at the new Photographer’s Gallery as the best short-list in a while.

Of the two architecture exhibitions, I preferred Le Corbusier at The Barbican to Paladio at the RA, though there were too many drawings which may be fascinating to an architect but rather dull to a layman.

The Russian Linesman collection at the Hayward seemed to me to be another of those excuses-for-an-exhibition that the Hayward (and others) are rather too fond of.

I caught up with the British Museum’s Babylon just before it closed and even though it falls into the excuse-for-an-exhibition category, like the Queen if Sheba before it at the same museum, there were enough good exhibits to excuse it on this occasion. By the time I saw it the Shah Abbas exhibition had moved into the converted Reading Room and proved to be as good as The First Emperor and Hadrian before it with some terrific exhibits, but above all telling the story of a great leader very well.

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition was a huge disappointment – very static; you’d learn more and have more fun reading a book. The V&A’s contribution was an exhibition about Hats which I went to ‘passing through’ the museum but I’m afraid left me cold – it was crowded though, so its clearly up a lot of other people’s streets. I was there to see the new performance galleries and they proved to be a real treat – a superb collection of costumes, memorabilia, video clips really well curated in just four galleries (though rather hidden somewhere on the 3rd floor). We went to the new British Music Experience at the O2 in its first week. It’s a terrific interactive tribute to 50 years of popular music. You can learn to play instruments, watch and hear video and sound clips and view memorabilia and store what you like onto a web space you can then access at your leisure. I’m not sure I’ll access my attempts at drumming and keyboard playing much, but I did love the experience and could have stayed all day. Of course, you tend to concentrate on your favourite period – in my case 60’s and 70’s – and provided the visitor age range is as wide as it was the day we went that means the visitor numbers are managed well.


Eonnagata is a collaboration between a favourite dancer (Sylvie Guillem), a favourite theatre director (Robert Lepage) and a favourite choreographer (Russell Maliphant). I’m not sure the idea of staging a story of a transvestite 17th century French nobleman works, but the craftsmanship is unquestionable and the visual imagery stunning; I was spellbound for all 90  minutes.


Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret was a great idea – a variety show thrown together on the day for a tenner. It was a hit-and-miss affair but enough of a hit to make it a decent birthday treat. My other (surprise) birthday (and Christmas) treat was a visit to Simon Drake’s House of Magicwww.houseofmagic.co.uk – I think Lynne & Graham were as pleased that the surprise remained a surprise and that they’d found something in London I’d never heard of as they were that I enjoyed it so much – it’s a very original night out.

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I took the opportunity of a slow start to business post holiday season to catch a lot more culture than just theatre this month and here’s a summary.

The Art highlight was Seizure. Artist Roger Hiorns sealed up a disused ground floor flat, drilled a hole in the ceiling, filled it with a copper sulphate solution and left it for 3 weeks. When it was drained, if left behind a blue crystal grotto which you can now enter; quite extraordinary. Wierd Inventions in the IP centre at the at the British Library is a handful of cases displaying some of the most bizzarre things ever patented and it made me laugh out loud, as did the Beano & Dandy 70th Birthday Exhibition at the Cartoon Museum; fond memories. There were some great rock photos in the Keith Morris photo exhibition; I’d never heard of him and was amazed to see some iconic photos for LP covers, such as Elvis Costello’s ‘My Aim Is True’. The Ilumini exhibition in the crypt of a church at St Pancras was a bit hit-and-miss and didn’t really come together under the theme of light & art, but the antiqueTravel Posters at Sotherans were great.

Catching up with recent cinema releases I was captivated by Somers Town, a heart-warming tale of the friendship between the son of a Polish immigrant and a runaway from the Midlands. The Wackness was just that- a charming whacky coming of age tale set in NYC with a terrifically funny turn from Ben Kingsly as a dope-smoking analyst who refuses to grow up. At the Ritzy, it was shown in digital HD and the quality was sensational. I loved The Duchess; one of the best costume dramas for years which is beautifully designed and directed and has an excellent performance from Keira Knightly who up to now I hadn’t really rated. Finally, I caught up with the new Indiana Jones film and thought it was much more fun that the reviews suggested; there were some great tongue-in-cheek moments.

During a trip ‘Up North’ to check up on the Hawkins-Watsons, we went to Leeds Town Hall for their 150th birthday concert. It’s a gorgeous building and the entirely British programme contained items of significance in terms of previous performances there. In the same trip we saw Northern Ballet Theatre’s latest dance drama Two Cities, based on the Dickens novel. Though I love their style, it was a rather over-ambitious story to tell in dance, as was their Hamlet which I saw earlier this year at Sadler’s Wells.

My final Prom was a surreal experience; they had programmed a Vaughan Williams symphony and Holst’s Planets with a Xenakis 45-min percussion piece, so it was bound to end in tears! During the Xenakis, the conservatives in the seats behaved like ageing delinquents – talking, booing, and walking out. I’m afraid I had to reprimand the 70-something in H37 as I was not prepared to let his disrespect for the rest of the audience go unpunished! As it happens, I didn’t really like the Xenakis myself, but that’s not the point. At the Wigmore Hall, a recital of English song was a bit hit-and-miss; Christopher Maltman getting more hits and Joan Rogers more misses. Finzi outshone Vaugham Williams & Howells on this occasion.

Another successful opera weekend in Cardiff where quality and value continue to reign at WNO. I loved everything about their new production of Verdi’s Otello – the design (more gold and red broccade that you’ll see in your lifetime; and that was just Act 3!), the staging, the terrific chorus and orchestra and an on-form team of Dennis O’Neill, Amanda Roocroft and David Kempster (I think this is his first Iago, in which case it’s a triumph) in the lead roles. The Barber of Seville was a delightful Commedia del Arte production which didn’t look its (20+ years) age and came over sparking and fresh. Back at the Lindbury Studio at Covent Garden, an opera for children called Varjak Jaw had a lot to recommend it but as you got under half of the words it seemed to me to be rather inaccessible to its target audience. They clearly know this as they were thrusting a free synopsis into your hand before you entered the auditorium. Better vocal composition, better diction and surtitles might have helped more.

It was a good year for London Open House. Our tour of the Beefeater Distillery in Kennington (the only London Gin still distilled in London, so I’ve switched brands as a result!) was the highlight. A trip to eco-homes at BedZed in Wallington was very interesting. The tour of the 2012 Olympic site made you gasp at the scale of it all. Will Alsop’s Palestra building was a bit of a disappointment (to be honest, we didn’t feel that welcome and they didn’t try very hard). A couple more livery companies to add to my collection – The Painter Stainers and the Barber Surgeons – completed the weekend.

In the same action-packed weekend, we were lucky enought to catch a try-out of comedian Mark Thomas’ new show – mostly new material (and some old stuff he delivers so well it bears a lot of repeating) based on his new book on Coca Cola which I can’t wait to read.

I was invited to the press launch of the transfer from Australia of the stage musical of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. They’d flown over the Aussie cast during a gap in their tour and we were treated to some extracts, as a result of which I headed straight to the box office! ‘Costumes’? – I’m not sure the word does it justice!

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Well, here I am for the Nth time (I’ve lost count) in the August cultural capital trying to work out which of the c.2000 shows I should take in. The more you come the easier it gets, as you learn to discriminate between the best home for new writing in the UK (The Traverse) and the new all female musical comedy version of Hamlet performed in a tree by a cast of 3…..

We started well with Let’s See What Happens by The Scat Pack, which is a bunch of talented (and brave) performers who create a new play each day before your very eyes, with a guest director and audience suggestion. With the fringe increasingly hijacked by ‘corporate comedy’ this is a breath of fresh air and embodies its true spirit……and we weren’t biased because Clive & Julia’s son Henry was in it! The Icelandic contingent was particularly taken with it.

Our visit to see a small Georgian male voice choir became more significant as events had unfolded in their homeland. Greyfriars was the perfect venue for a very varied selection of extraordinary songs – religious, folk, work songs & drinking songs amongst them. The very warm welcome was more than appreciation for a lovely show; it was also Edinburgh showing solidarity with their plight.

A rare bummer at the previously feted Traverse – Fall by Zinnie Harris – a play about war crimes which started at a snails pace and by the time it picked up became preposterous. I’m afraid we left at the interval as (Edinburgh) life’s too short for duds like this.

Arthur Smith’s one-off contemporary art lecture (to accompany his spoof exhibition) was a lovely slice of great British eccentricity and again the true spirit of the fringe. With three guest slots (including a late arriving Simon Munnery who had nipped out the back for a fag!), a couple in an on-stage wendy house throughout and someone called Rupert showing us his diamond prince albert piercing (!) there was never a dull moment. When I eventually caught up with the exhibition, Rupert was on the door, but I think I managed to look like I’d never seen (any of him) before. ‘Head of Security’ Ray Spinks, in his uniform and spectacular false moustache, remembered me from last year, which may be some indication of the exhibition’s popularity (though it did win an IF comedy award). It was even better this year but I still can’t find the words to describe it.

Margaret Edge had recommended Meli Melo, four talented Frenchmen who spoof everything from ballet to competition gymnastics to ice dancing to flamenco, and it turned out to be a real treat. We laughed our socks off and almost wet ourselves (too much information?). This is the sort of show which the French equivalent of the arts council subsidise (as well as opera, ballet etc.)  – can we have their arts council please!

Shakespeare for Breakfast wasn’t up to its usual standard – this year with Macbeth and his lady, Romeo & Juliet, Malvolio and Prospero flitting in and out of The Weakest Link and The Apprentice. It amazes me how many people turn up at 10am for this, but maybe the free coffee and croissant have something to do with it. After 17 years, though, I think it may have outstayed its welcome.


Aluminium is a spectacle on the theme of…..go on, guess….which is highly inventive, pretty spectacular but otherwise a bit cold and pointless. It is a great idea well executed though, so I can’t say it was a waste of time or money. We decided it was for younger folk who have less need for things like narrative, story, plot or depth!


One of the absolute highlights followed (and I’m proud to say it was produced by Sherman Cymru, a good use of Welsh arts council funding if ever I saw any), with a verbatim play about the Deep Cut barracks case. You’re now thinking ‘heavy’ but it wasn’t. It was more objective and less preachy than most in this genre – and beautifully acted. When you live in a world of spin and cover up, you need theatre like this.


The next show also fell into the Verbatim theatre category; this time about the plight of those still homeless after the July 2007 flooding. Their stories were told at close quarters inside a caravan for an audience of less than 10. The proximity made it all the more real and when the actors made eye contact, I found myself nodding and grunting in true ‘active listening’ mode. Another treat.


At 75, Joan Rivers could easily be getting skin cancer in the sun in Palm Springs or standing on stage telling autobiographical stories and smutty jokes. Instead, she creates a play based on a episode of her life when she was fired and steps in and out of it to talk to the audience in the first person as if we were her therapist. It doesn’t entirely work but you can’t help admiring her balls (!) and there are some very funny lines. I felt a bit out of place in a reverential audience of fans, but didn’t regret going.


High culture followed with Honneger’s oratorio Le Roi David, which for 20th century music is surprisingly tuneful! I got a bit lost in the biblical story (despite the libretto) and after a while didn’t really care who begat whom but it was beautifully sung and played and Jeff’s snoring wasn’t too loud.


Tina C is a country singer who’s decide to run for president and practice her campaign rally here in Edinburgh….well, actually she’s the creation of Christopher Green from south London, but you just might believe it. I’ve seen her / him a few times before (without the presidential campaign context) and this wasn’t the best for two reasons – the live guitar accompaniment has been given over to pre-recorded tracks and there were a bunch of drunks in the audience whose loud talking was clearly making it hard for him / her to concentrate (and we eventually conspired to slow handclap them out of the venue). Still worth the effort though and I’m looking forward to another of his creations – housewife Ida Bar – at the Barbican at Christmas.


The badly titled Pornography (it’s not got a lot to do with it) is a brave attempt to weave together stories of fictional Londoner’s (and a fictional bomber) at the time of the 07/07 bombings. I thought it was beautifully written, acted and staged and regret that it couldn’t find a home where it belongs in London. Simon Stephens is a favourite playwright of mine, though I didn’t like his last play – Harper Regan – at the National, so this is a return to form.


At the same venue, the aforementioned Traverse, Architecting was the low spot of the entire festival. This is the sort of pretentious avante guarde tosh NYC’s Wooster Group churned out in the 80’s and I can’t fathom why the otherwise spot-on National Theatre of Scotland decided to involve themselves with it. Maybe it was a jolly to the US for the assistant director…..If I was Scottish, I’d be picketing the parliament.


Old folkie John Redbourn is certainly a guitar virtuoso (though he can’t sing for toffee!) and though a bit under-rehearsed he managed to deliver enough to send you home happy. Unfortunately we followed him with a more virtuosic and on-form Latin jazz guitarist Antonio Forcione and the comparison didn’t help. Forcione and his percussionist were completely original and simply wonderful.


It’s not often you see something completely different, but Slick was just that. I can only describe it as puppets with human faces and arms which look something like cabbage patch dolls. The result was like a crude surreal black comedy cartoon – it was a touch overlong, but I still loved it.


After a spectacular lunch at Restaurant Martin Wishart, any play was going to be a challenge and so it proved with New Electric Ballroom. I think it was another of Enda Walsh’s gothic Irish stories of unfulfilled lives, but you might have to ask Jeff or Ruth who appeared to be more awake than me.


Every year I go to a stand-up and then wonder why I don’t go to more, and so it was with Michael McIntyre. The reason why I’m put off is that you can always see them on TV or back in London, so why waste precious Edinburgh time? The reason why I enjoyed this so much might be because it was a great laugh to end the day – no gimmicks; just a normal bloke who is exceptionally funny.


Our final day started at the Traverse (again!) for Terminus; three interwoven monologues. Though I admired them and they were beautifully told on a stunningly lit set, they were (like all monologues) not really theatre. This sparked a fascinating debate, as the most literary amongst us (Jeff) liked them most and the most visual (me) least. Different people are clearly stimulated by different things and see the same show from a different perspective. To satisfy my intuition, I need characters to interact and changing visual images to accompany them.


Stephen Berkoff’s interpretation of the 50’s (?) Brando film On The Waterfront gave us another highlight. It took a while to take off, but once you were immersed in the highly stylised movement it was captivating, and the terrific ensemble provided some of the best acting of the week.


We’d started with the spirit of the fringe and we ended with the spirit of the international (main) festival – a 70’s English play (Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy) re-interpreted for a 21st century post-civil war Bosnia. Its anger was a bit relentless, but it probably meant more to me just a month after my visit. Whatever you think of it though, it’s what festivals are for and it brought back many memories of better main festival days – Macbeth in Japanese at cherry blossom time in the Shogun period and Greek tragedies in Romanian in a disused corn exchange!


Art has been well represented in recent years, but this year was a disappointment. Though it included some nice paintings, Impressionism & Scotland was really an excuse for an exhibition and only Janet Cardiff & Charles Miller’s six (mostly aural and sometimes moving) installations enthralled (well, me and Clive bu t not Jeff & Ruth!).


Not a vintage Edinburgh, but it’s always a fascinating cocktail. I’m now in the Orkney’s looking at the morning sun over the glass-like Kirkwall harbour from my hotel room and it seems like a million miles away……..

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This is one hour of sketches and one-liners on the theme of leaving your lover. It’s a very hit-and-miss affair which would be fun on the fringe but isn’t really substantial enough for a night at the Bush. I don’t know how big or noisy the previous tour venue was, but in this tiny space they often shout unecessarily, making the show even cruder and lacking in subtlety. The grumpy old man in me wants to say that ‘it’s really for the youngsters’. It’s really for the youngsters.

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This is an article from The Observer on 13th July for which I was interviewed. You’ll have to scroll down to para 28 to find my few words of wisdom, but I’ve hightlighted them for you in case you haven’t got time !
An army of arts bloggers is posting internet reviews on subjects from grand opera to soap opera – instant, global and free. US newspapers have begun to ditch their reviewers as digital alternatives flourish. Could it happen here? On the blog, Jay Rayner asks for your thoughts. Join the conversation
Jay Rayner
Sunday July 13 2008
The Observer

It was a croquette of pig’s head that finally forced me to recognise the threat posed by the blogosphere. It was served at the Westerly, a restaurant in Reigate, Surrey, in April last year. I knew nothing of the place, or its chef, but I had a copy of the menu, and it was full of things I like to eat: Jerusalem artichokes and wild garlic, snails and pigeon and Amalfi lemons. It had the potential to be everything a newspaper restaurant critic dreams of – a genuine find outside London, serving terrific food at a reasonable price.

It was all that and more. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My companion agreed. Simon Majumdar, a one-time publishing executive, is a food blogger. We had met on internet food discussion boards, which he had left behind in favour of his blog, Dos Hermanos, so named because he writes it with his brother, Robin. It is their account of eating out across the world. A restaurant critic needs a companion, and Simon had regularly been mine. We both adored the gazpacho and the rillette, the lamb with its butter-rich mashed potato and the sorbet made with Amalfi lemons. And of course we loved the pig’s head croquette with sauce gribiche, for we are both men with a taste for the cheaper cuts. At the end I asked for a copy of the menu, paid the bill and we went home.

Within two hours of getting back to my desk, Simon’s review was online. He did not explain why he had been there. He did describe it as his best meal of the year so far. My eye strayed to his mention of the pig’s head, with mounting panic: ‘a large disc of head meat fried perfectly in crumbs to a crisp coating which when punctured gave off a steamy aroma of pork’. Spot on. Simon might not have been paid for it, but he is a good writer. And a lot of people would read him. Granted, not as many as read The Observer. Even today, with the cult of the Dos Hermanos blog fully developed, it rarely gets more than 7,000 readers a week.

The problem was that his readers would be opinion formers: not just chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists but other hardcore restaurant goers. And when my review was printed almost three weeks later they would all assume I was the one who had taken my lead from Simon rather than the other way round; that the real finds were being made by the amateurs. The blogger had beaten me into print. I had no choice. I called Simon and asked him to take down his post until my version had appeared. Ever the gentleman, he agreed. From that point on I concluded I could no longer view the blogosphere as source material or even mere displacement activity. Now it was the competition.

It could be worse. At least those of us in Britain who make our living from our opinions are still gainfully employed. Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised. In the movie world two sites are credited with decimating the profession. Ironically, Rotten Tomatoes, founded in August 1998, was designed to give readers access to the opinions of a bunch of critics. If 60 per cent or more of the reviews are good, the film gets a fresh rating; fewer than 60 per cent and it’s rotten. The site became so popular that in 2004 it was bought by IGN Entertainment which, in turn, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (which, as a newspaper publisher, also pays critics). Metacritic, launched in January 2001, also combines reviews but across various media and arts, including films, video games and books. It too became so successful it was bought out, by CNET networks. Since then, blogs, written by unpaid enthusiasts, have proliferated to
 such a degree that in some areas of the arts their writers are being courted by the PR machine.

The old media have, predictably, been outraged. After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’ So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.’

The advent of the net has been described as a revolution. If so, one of its most heated battles is being fought over the right to claim expertise. In the US the ancien régime, in this case the salaried critic, appears to be in retreat. The question is what will happen here? We need only look at television criticism, a once-noble calling pursued for this newspaper by both Julian Barnes and Clive James, for clues. In May the Daily Telegraph decided it no longer needed a daily TV review. Regular TV reviews have also gone at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London’s Evening Standard. Could the same happen to other arts?

The British critical tradition is long and rich and deep: from the pamphleteering of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the early 18th century, through the literary criticism of Oscar Wilde in the 19th to Graham Greene’s film reviews and Kenneth Tynan’s first-night theatre notices in the 20th, we have never been short of confident people to tell us what is good and what is not and why.

‘We have a wonderful tradition of criticism in this country,’ says Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard for nearly 25 years, ‘and it would be a tragedy if we lost it. The onlooker sees most. We are the skilled onlookers.’

But in a globalised world where something posted on the net in Chicago one minute is read in London the next, no trend is ever localised. So how web-savvy are Britain’s crew of professional opinion-peddlers? Are they ready to take on the challenge from the ones who do it for free? There’s only one way to find out: ask them. So we assembled a collection of Britain’s longest-serving and most distinguished paid critics who, between them, have more than two centuries’ experience in telling us what they think, and sought their opinions. It’s what they’re for.

Andrew and Phil have lots of opinions too, and tonight I’m hoping to hear some of them. It is a warm evening in Waterloo and we are at the Young Vic for a preview performance of Berthold Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan, starring Jane Horrocks, a gritty little number full of cement dust, exploitation of the workers, prostitution and discordant, irritatingly Brechtian songs.

Of course, paid newspaper critics do not review productions on previews, but Andrew and Phil – they insist on first names only, to maintain the web-enhanced ‘mystique’ – are not paid by anybody. They write a blog called the West End Whingers, which they set up in June 2006 after sitting through what they regarded as an appalling production of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, starring Juliette Lewis. Both middle-aged, long-time theatregoers, they were fed up with each other’s whingeing so, as they explain on the blog, they ‘decided to whinge at the world instead’.

Their reviews, written under one voice, are sharp and irreverent in a mannered, high camp sort of way. Their destruction of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife at the National Theatre, written for the most part as a play about the imagined receipt of the script, is laugh-out-loud funny – and a damn sight more enjoyable than the hand-wringing from some of the paid critics when they held forth over what was agreed to be a sub-standard work by the revered playwright. (‘[Frayn’s] deliberately repeated bits over and over again,’ they imagine National director Nicholas Hytner howling, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have given him a word count. It’s the oldest trick in the book.’)

As we wait for The Good Soul to start I ask them if they feel they have a responsibility to anybody. (As with the no-surnames rule they also insist on being interviewed as one person, while telling you that they have never been a couple.) ‘We’re only here for our own amusement,’ they say. ‘We have no obligation to sit through it on behalf of our readers.’ Walking out of plays is a speciality of the West End Whingers. If they don’t like it, they leave. After all, their tickets aren’t free. They have paid for almost every one, bar those for Swimming With Sharks starring Christian Slater. ‘We didn’t care for it and we said as much. We haven’t been invited back to the West End since.’

Their beautifully described midway departure from an early preview of the epoch-long Gone With The Wind was, according to a number of people in the theatre world, the first sign that all was not well with the musical. So do they think the mainstream critics have a role? ‘Oh yes. Someone has to stay until the curtain to see what happens at the end.’ Would they like to be paid for what they do? ‘I think if we were paid it would mean we would have to play the game, which would be boring.’

They also have no desire to work for a newspaper. ‘Endure the theatre without alcohol? Locate things in the wider discourse? No. we have no aspirations in that direction.’

There is quite a lot of alcohol tonight: before, during and after as the whingers and their entourage – me, other bloggers, a few friends of friends – settle in to enjoy themselves. Their review, when it is posted a couple of days later, seems to reflect a good night out. ‘Horrocks was great and there were many other performances to enjoy, too,’ they wrote. ‘In fact there were oodles of things to write down: great wigs, a lot of cigarette smoking, rain, wonderful props and signage…’ So no, not exactly a first-night crit of the sort Kenneth Tynan might admire. But – whisper it – it did quietly remind me more of the night I’d had than did the professional reviews I would later read.

Which is all well and good, says Charles Spencer, a theatre reviewer for the Daily Telegraph since 1991. But that doesn’t mean we should mistake what the West End Whingers do for criticism. (Which, for the record, they never claim it to be). ‘I don’t think they’re very helpful,’ Spencer says. ‘Mildly entertaining, I suppose, but that brand of camp humour doesn’t do it for me. They’re not really critics. The last thing of theirs I read was them whingeing about squeaky seats at the Old Vic.’ Then again, Spencer admits to being a bit of a web-refusenik. ‘I look at Wikipedia now and then but until a year ago I hadn’t looked at the web at all.’

Indeed it would be easy to portray many of our leading critics as a bunch of silver-backed elders of the tribe, caught on the hop by technological change. Of course, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Gillian Reynolds, who has been writing superbly about radio since 1967, and for the Telegraph since 1975, admits she has little time for opinions on the web. ‘I just don’t want to hang around with company I don’t value. Life’s too short.’ Clement Crisp, who has been writing about dance for the Financial Times for more than 35 years, and for whom the word ‘venerable’ might have been invented, is succinct about it: ‘I don’t really understand the beastly internet.’

This is not to suggest that Crisp dismisses what bloggers are doing. ‘The people who are writing these reviews are absolutely splendid,’ he says, letting the last word sing for slightly longer than the other nine put together. ‘They are devoted ballet fans. But it has nothing to do with criticism.’ The point, he says, is that the true critic can draw on a well of experience. ‘I started going to the ballet as a child in 1943, and for the next 20 years I saw everything there was – the creation of the great new companies, the arrival of the Russian, the Danes …’ Only then did he begin to write.

Spencer agrees. ‘You’re supplying a service, one with real authority behind it. There is always going to be a need for expert opinion.’

Don’t even mention the need for the democratisation of opinion to Brian Sewell. ‘I do not believe in the democratisation of opinion. I believe in benign authority. And if we undermine the authority of critics then we shall descend into mayhem.’

Our own Philip French, film critic for The Observer for 30 years, is a little more accepting of the challenge from the bloggers. ‘People should have the right to express their opinions. The right to free speech has been extended, but you don’t have to be elitist to say that not all opinion is of equal value. There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. The risk is that bad criticism will drive good criticism out of business by sheer volume.’

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre man for more than 35 years, allows that there is a new accommodation to be made. Then again, he works for the publishers of this newspaper which, historically, has embraced the online world with more enthusiasm than others. He has been forced to join the debate on the web. His first piece for Guardian Unlimited (now guardian.co.uk) was about The Sultan’s Elephant, a public art installation involving a huge mechanical pachyderm striding through London in 2006. ‘I wrote a piece attacking it and got hundreds of comments. They clobbered me. I wasn’t used to getting such a response.’ It was a wake-up call. ‘I was suddenly aware that there was an army of people with opinions as strong as mine. Journalists of my generation have to adapt. And we have to accept that the printed word no longer has aristocratic supremacy.’

Of course, some newspaper critics are living the digital life to the full. Both Mark Shenton, drama critic of the Sunday Express, and Ian Shuttleworth, of the Financial Times, either blog or weigh in on other blogs. Norman Lebrecht, arts columnist of the Evening Standard, has long written a blog for artsjournal.com and is an avid consumer of online opinion. ‘What I see out there is quite a mixture. A lot of it is amateurish in a good sense. But I do miss incisiveness, people delivering real information and knowledge.’ He also counsels his brethren to think twice before wading in to online discussions. ‘One has to be very careful of making any comment. Bloggers are as sensitive as any diva. Criticise them and they will attack you.’

Sometimes they will attack without any encouragement. Gareth James is a freelance management consultant who has been writing reviews at whatsonstage.com for six years. There is, he argues, a shift in power towards the consumer. ‘I simply started disagreeing with the critics,’ he says. ‘They are out of step with the audience and that’s because they do it all the time. Most people go to be entertained. We go to have a good night out.’ Critics, he thinks, go for something else. It’s why he believes they write enthusiastically about the works of Pinter or Chekhov which, for the most part, he can’t abide. ‘That sort of thing is put on for the Michael Billingtons of this world, not for Gareth James.’

It was a similar sense of disconnection that got Lynne Hatwell writing her book blog, Dove Grey Reader. A community nurse with a major reading habit, who lives in the Tamar Valley on the border of Devon and Cornwall, she increasingly felt the books pages of national newspapers had nothing to offer her. ‘I had this feeling there was a literary feast going on in London but that I was not a part of it. I also didn’t feel I was being well served by the bookshops, that I had become a puppet of their three-for-two tables. I wanted to know how you find other stuff.’ Now, according to her ‘what I’m reading’ panel, she is working her way through Trauma by Patrick McGrath, Trying to Please by John Julius Norwich and, er, my latest one. Hell, the woman’s far too influential for me to let that opportunity pass me by.

She declares that she is not a literary critic or reviewer. She writes about what books mean to her. ‘There’s nothing objective about what I’m doing. I used to worry about whether what I felt about a book was the same as anybody else.’ Not any more. ‘I feel a responsibility to myself, to be transparent and honest, but also to the readers because there are some who now compile their reading lists solely from my recommendations.’ Is she posing a challenge to the books pages of national newspapers? ‘Absolutely, and one that was long overdue. For too long it was a closed shop.’

But, she says, the project was personal. In the first year she spent more than £2,000 on books. But publishers set up Google alerts, which mop up any mentions of their titles online. Soon she was receiving emails offering to supply her with details of new publications. She now gets nearly all the catalogues and free review copies of books from most publishers (except, curiously, Virago, which ignores her – but probably won’t after reading this). ‘I’ve realised that I could be used as a marketing tool, and I have to resist that. A fundamental rule is that reading still has to be a pleasure.’ Also, she doesn’t do bad reviews. If it’s on her site it’s because she likes it. ‘It’s about my emotional responses.’

Other sources of critical opinion have risen up online, their creators say, because the old media wasn’t able to handle them. Steve Bennett created chortle.co.uk, an online stand-up comedy fanzine, because there was not enough coverage in the press. ‘Even the mags that dedicated space to comedy didn’t give it much space.’ Everybody did Ricky Gervais on tour. Everybody did Bill Bailey and Lee Evans. Nobody did the smaller names. ‘To do a print version of Chortle would be very expensive whereas an internet start-up is cheap.’

Naturally, comedy publicists take notice of chortle, but it’s in film where the real PR action is. Jam, a digital marketing agency, targets bloggers. For Daniel Noy, an executive with the company, utilising their power is a no-brainer. ‘Bloggers are important because of the way the internet started. It’s a community, which means there’s a community of film fans online.’ The challenge, he argues, is to know how to use them. ‘There’s a wariness about bloggers, a sense that you can’t control them. Personally I don’t think that you should control them. Reactions can be good or bad. It’s a risk you have to take, and that’s the power of real conversation.’

Jam has begun blogger-only screenings, starting with Juno. ‘It helped that Diablo Cody, Juno’s screenwriter, was a blogger.’ But the digital marketers have to be honest. Back in 1999, the Jurassic age in web terms, Warner Brothers wanted to hold a test screening for the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West to build buzz on the net, but was so unsure of the film that it told the invited audience of online critics that they were going to watch The Matrix. The audience was furious and helped create the negativity around it that never dissipated. ‘They posted comments slagging it off and it did very badly.’

So does Noy think newspaper critics are now redundant? Not yet. ‘You can’t deny the readership of newspaper and magazines.’ Chortle’s Bennett agrees. ‘A lot of newspaper critics have got the job because they both know what they are talking about and can write,’ he says. ‘Where as a lot of bloggers may only fill one side of that equation.’

I wondered if my sometime dining companion Simon Majumdar agreed. When his last employer went bust he decided to explore the world’s eating opportunities. He came up with an idea for a book, Eat My Globe, which is out next year. He is now a paid food writer. Does he think the democratisation of opinion is a good thing? ‘You can get as many opinions as there are arseholes. Everyone’s got one. There are some good writers out on the web. Then there are some who shouldn’t be allowed to write an address on the front of an envelope.’

So the professionals still have a role? ‘I like reading you all but I don’t think any of you necessarily know more about food than I do. I read you for entertainment. If you’re not entertaining, however informative you are, there’s no reason for you existing.’ In short, he says, we can claim authority only by being good.

Finally, I alight on the killer question. Simon, would you like my job? ‘If I had the opportunity to take your job away from you,’ he says, ‘yes, I would.’ That is a reassuring vote of confidence in old media. More reassuringly, there isn’t a vacancy. At least for now.

Additional research by Maria Garbutt-Lucero and Katie Toms

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

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The art treat of the month was a visit to William Morris’ house, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. It was a private Royal Academy visit so we had time and space to take in this beautiful home. An Arts & Crafts gem.

The Linda Mccartney photo exhibition was good, if small – 40 or so photos. I’d like to know where the money goes as at £4000 per print, I valued the sale at over £2m! In contrast to the realism of these, Gregory Crewdsen‘s wierdly painterly photos at White Cube were spooky.

My comedy hero, Mark Thomas, did a short platform performance at the National. I love people who use their talent to advance a cause and Mark is the master. He’s a one-man opposition, exposing things that need to be exposed, lately a lot on the arms trade. This platform was organised to tie in with the production of Shaw’s play on the arms trade, Major Barbara. Marks expose’s are thought-provoking but also very funny – try his book ‘As used on the famous Nelson Mandela’.

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