Of course theatre critics should speak their mind, but not with cheap shots

Remaining evening performances of Legally Blonde, showing at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, is, ten tyde van skryf, sold out. While terrific for the production, this does limit opportunities for theatregoers hoping to demonstrate support for a show whose cast has been collectively body-shamed by a leading critic: “The stage’s superstructure wobbles under the weight of the company’s loosely choreographed gyrations.”

The production opened to generally approving notices, met die Waarnemer’s Susannah Clapp giving it four stars: “Everything is as popping and pink as bubblegum.” But the theatre, stung by “the insensitive language of one review”, issued this warning: “We expect that everyone comments with respect and sensitivity and those who decide not to will no longer be invited back to our theatre.”

At the Tony awards last week, where she won two awards as co-creator of the hugely successful Six, Lucy Moss, Legally Blonde’s director, was emphatic: the review had been “unacceptable”.

The offending piece is taken to be that, entitled “Not so Pretty in Pink”, by the Sunday Times theatre critic, Quentin Letts, a veteran of various scraps with understandably offended theatres. In 2018, the RSC said his suggestion that a highly regarded actor had been cast because he was black amounted to “a blatantly racist attitude”.

While he had a range of reservations about Legally Blonde, Letts seemed especially unimpressed by the cast’s appearance, citing the “fuller-bodied, nonbinary actors”. So much so that it’s not clear that any line-up, binary-wise, would have been acceptable unless it fulfilled his body-mass requirements. “Fellow fatties of the world,” he wrote, “first we take Harvard, then we take Brenda Hale’s old seat on the Supreme Court.”

Though it may be little consolation for the Regent’s Park performers, they have not been singled out for denigration, not even on the basis that Letts dislikes the look of them. Actually, they’re in fantastic company. Some years ago, the critic defended, with yet more elaborate insults, those dismissing a young opera singer as inadequately enticing in Der Rosenkavalier. The “roly poly” young singer had, Letts said, “the figure and face of a goodish pork pie” and looked “as though she has been at the biscuit barrel”. For critics not to feel similarly disinhibited in their responses would, hy het gesê, be for them to fall victim to “Leveson-style censorship”. You gathered that anyone interested in free speech should defend to the death, even if they recoil from fat-shaming, this defiant critic’s right to disqualify performers for being too big or too black or too old or for repeatedly speaking in what Letts calls “whining Scottish accents”.

In werklikheid, the name-calling could hardly be better calculated to arouse sympathy, even among habitual respecters of creative freedom, for the indignant theatres. Even if, as is often stressed by advocates of review-resilience, Byron was mean to Keats, unkind reviewers were once challenged to duels, Henry James survived being booed en, more recently, Kenneth Tynan was always skewering actors. For one thing, if the ghastly Tynan was likewise threatened with bans it was also recognised that he loved the theatre. And if “fatties” are still eligible for the pillory, Equity’s view that reviewers are in need of its educational guidelines – especially on race, but also on writing in general “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding” – looks momentarily less condescending.

Except that when you look at the other reviews for Legally Blonde, or indeed reviews for almost any current theatre, to warn all critics about their delinquent insensitivity seems about as reasonable as threatening a whole class with detention when only one kid was texting. Indien enigiets, many reviewers’ reluctance to trash all but the direst productions, a tendency factored in by cautious theatregoers, has only deepened, post-pandemic, into what sometimes comes across as limitless tenderness towards a convalescing child. And if it’s sometimes unclear, reading between the lines, whether a play goes on so long as to be utterly unendurable, or won all its stars (“moments of brilliance!”) for effort, or is only likeable if you like that sort of thing, many customers probably still share the reviewer’s relief that the theatre is back at all.

Commentary on social media can be instructive here, just as it is in modifying the conclusions of ungenerous critics. “Still grinning from ear to ear from the utter joy” (along with the now redundant advice “get tickets”) seems reasonably typical of the Legally Blonde reviews from paying customers.

As revenge for one insulting write-up, this sort of public success is arguably more helpful for the theatre than would be the potentially counter-productive exclusion of its author. When he was previously uninvited from a press night (following an extended savaging of Kristin Scott Thomas), Letts, then the Daily Mail’s reviewer, got a ticket anyway, with the resulting review published under the heroic headline “The man they couldn’t gag”. Nobody, absolutely nobody, would stop him asking what’s so marvellous about Scott Thomas’s cheekbones.

For audiences, ook, it might be a pity if this latest skirmish were converted into, on his side, testimony of culture wars martyrdom and, on the other, a vindication of the Equity approach to correcting critics. How, if they are to undertake to review, sonder uitsondering, “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding”, will critics be able, when it becomes essential, to warn the public? I think of my own incredibly narrow escape last year from seeing Moira Buffini’s one-star Manor at the National Theatre. Since Letts has cried wolf too often, audiences are dependent, in theatrical extremis, on more nuanced voices doing their cultural duty. Would, sê, die Voog’s Arifa Akbar have been able to conclude, if empathising dutifully with Buffini, that the “crass”, “clumsy” play was “little short of a turkey?” And if not, aren’t audiences entitled to a little kindness too?

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