To criticise the critics - very slighty
To be a member of the Critics' Circle in Britain you have to have been a regularly published critic of the theatre, music, dance, cinema or visual arts for at least two years. It's a handy form of accreditation and, unlike the way theatre and film people and musicians are organized, it has no aspect of trade unionism, and so is non-political and uncontroversial - for the most part.
In addition to the Critics' Circle overall annual award to a practitioner of one of the arts, some of the five sections listed above give their own awards. Yesterday was the grandest occasion, the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards for 2011. The Prince of Wales Theatre in the West End was crammed with faces familiar from screens as well as from behind the footlights, as so many starry British film and television actors now seem to relish doing live theatre.
Eddie Redmayne at Awards Ceremony 24 January 2012
There were the stars of the Best New Play ("One Man. Two Guv'nors" in Richard Bean's cosmically funny take on Goldoni) including James Corden, Eddie Redmayne was there to receive a medal for his "Richard II", Sheridan Smith won best actress for "Flare Path" and only Benedict Cumberbatch was notably absent, filming in Canada. Danny Boyle collected his gong.
Glamorous though it was, there was something worrying when the chairman of the drama section, Mark Shenton, read out - before each award - the names of those (or some of those?) also nominated for the award. Sometimes the list was so lengthy that you had to suspect that almost every eligible critic had nominated someone different. That in itself is fine and healthy. But what bothered me was that there is only one round of voting; so some of the award winners must have had only a handful of critics voting for them - or even only two or three.
Unlike most of my colleagues (though I know of at least one who is in a similar position) I am - how to put this delicately?- not a full-time theatre critic. In my day job, freelancing as the culture critic for The Wall Street Journal Europe and for the online wsj.com, I review all the performing arts, especially theatre and opera, and also the visual arts. I have done this job since the 1990s, and I believe I have the distinction of being the only critic in the country who is a member of three sections of the Critics' Circle - drama, music and visual arts.
In short, I cannot possibly get to see every new theatre production. Even so, I see so many every year that, when voting for awards comes around in late winter, I have trouble remembering what I have seen, and which of those productions is eligible. At yesterday's awards a colleague who sees a play almost every night of the week confessed to me that he had the same problem.
It's a strength of the Critics' Circle Theatre Awards, and one of the features that makes them so valuable to their recipients, that there's only the single secret vote, no long list, no shortlist, - so no horse-trading or even campaigning is possible.
But now I'm beginning to feel that the system needs a tiny reform. Would it really make any difference to the cachet of the awards if, before voting, we were simply given a list of productions and people eligible for the awards? I can see that that means a lot of work for someone, but as the sponsor, the firm of London showbiz accountants, Nyman Libson Paul, is so generous in the provision of food and drink, I wonder whether they wouldn't be prepared to put up a small fee for someone to do the necessary research?
That won't solve my other problem, that I failed to see several of the award-winning productions and performances - but that's a reflection of when space is available in the paper, and sometimes merely of my poor predictive powers. I'm very glad indeed that my colleagues gave the Most Promising Playwright and Most Promising Newcomer to people I didn't know, respectively Tom Wells and Blanche McIntyre, both working in London's fringe theatre. This is exactly as it should be.
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