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The Critic at The Calder Bookshop & Theatre

It simply isn’t feasible to award five stars to everything one sees. But what if a negative review is written by someone whose opinion is revered and respected, and has such an impact on ticket sales that the production is forced into posting closing notices, and everyone involved loses their investments? Such is the position Alex (Gemma Pantaleo) finds herself in after a scathing review of her show by Hugh (Gary Heron), apparently also a prospective parliamentary candidate. There’s a fair bit of dramatic licence going on – and I appreciate I may be more than a bit over-defensive over negative reviews (ahem). In the end, box office receipts are ultimately down to the theatregoing public, and it’s rather difficult in reality to pin down the early closure of a production to a solitary subjective opinion.

The Critic at The Calder Bookshop & Theatre
The Critic at The Calder Bookshop & Theatre.

After all, Alex points out many other reviews of the production in question were ‘all right’: if they weren’t overly favourable or enthusiastic, then it’s all the more questionable as to whether Hugh’s words, unpleasant as they may have been, were solely responsible for Alex’s show closing early. But Hugh’s justification reveals something about his approach to theatre criticism – it is, he says, quite easy to respond negatively to a bad show, but it takes a certain amount of skill to do so to a good one. This in turn begs the question (at least in my mind) that a negative review from Hugh, given his alleged high profile and reputation, might have the effect of driving up box office receipts. I once booked to see a show on the back of a one-star review in a national newspaper. I enjoyed it so much I booked to see it again, and I’d have made a third visit, but the rest of the run was sold out.

Anyway, The Critic is billed as a comedy, and that’s largely what it is. I found myself suspending far more disbelief than usual as Alex has her methods of not only gaining entry to Hugh’s house but staying there for an extended period, during which neither of them ever wanted the loo or something to eat: liquid diets are in force, and alcoholic ones at that, but neither, fortunately, or unfortunately, drinks enough to get hammered. Whenever Alex’s mobile rings, the audience hears just her side of the conversation, which slows the momentum and lowers the dramatic tension, even if the intention appears to be to ramp it up by way of Alex’s insistence on Hugh wearing ear defenders to maintain confidentiality.

The somewhat artificial nature of it all, however, makes the production strangely enjoyable – this cannot feasibly be real, which therefore allows one to sit back and enjoy the play for what it is. Or not, as the case may be – a few fellow audience members at the performance I attended found it quite insufferable and weren’t afraid to say so afterwards. You can never please all of the people all of the time and all that.

Mental health features in Alex’s backstory, and is treated sympathetically, without being saccharine about it. There isn’t, ultimately, anything ground-breaking in the methods used by Alex to get back at Hugh for his Very Bad Review. It is, inescapably, drama about drama, and the storyline itself won’t do anything to dissuade people who already think most critics and reviewers are unduly harsh. But with two articulate characters who repeatedly catch each other out, it’s an intriguing battle of minds and wills in an era of cancel culture and social media pile-ons.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Hugh is a renowned theatre critic who seems to have everything a telegenic 50-something could possibly want. Success. Adoring fans. Money. Fame. Even a basic understanding of Twitter.

Privately it’s another story. He gets regular death threats, has no real friends, and his estranged son despises him even more than his ex-wife, with whom he’s still hopelessly in love.

But none of this matters today. Not only has he been approached about running as an MP in a safe seat – a long-cherished ambition – a lady friend is coming over for a special play date. But instead of his expected guest he opens the door to Alex, who forces her way into his penthouse at gunpoint.

Cast: Gary Heron and Gemma Panaleo
Director: Sally Ripley
Writer: John Hill
Set Design: Finn
Costume: Jenny Hobson
Lighting & Sound: Luis Gayol
Producer: The Calder Bookshop & Theatre

The Calder Bookshop & Theatre
51 The Cut, London SE18LF
Opposite The Young Vic.
Nearest Tube: Southwark & Waterloo
Show Dates & Times:
16th November to 10th December.
Wednesday to Saturday at 7.30pm.
Running time 2 hours with an interval.

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