Magazine article The Spectator

The Almost Lost Art of Astonishment

Magazine article The Spectator

The Almost Lost Art of Astonishment

Article excerpt

HONKY TONK PARADE : NEW YORKER PROFILES OF SHOW PEOPLE by John Lahr Duckworth, £14.99, pp. 308, ISBN 0715635441 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

First, the necessary declaration of interest. The author and I were, at the age of five, at nursery school in New York together for a couple of terms. But as in the intervening 60 years I have seen him barely half a dozen times, in crowded rooms, I feel free to say that he is in my view the best drama critic and showbiz profile-writer we have.

Partly, I have to add, this is the luck of the draw: at the New Yorker where he now works, he is given a couple of pages a week to expand on a single Broadway first night, and even better, given three or four months to write a profile of several thousand words.

Fourteen of these are reprinted here;

the author himself calls them 'mini-biographies' and he is not far wrong. If you are an actor or a dramatist or even a stand-up comic and John Lahr suggests an interview, don't expect the usual hurried half hour or so in a bar. Having him write your profile must be not unlike adopting or marrying him; not content with just reporting a career, he has been known literally to move in on the life of its owner. The result is a piece which could only otherwise have been written by a close friend, relative or long-term guest. The only disappointment is that instead of growing up in our overcrowded trade, he didn't become the psychiatrist he was so clearly born to be. These profiles are psychological studies of quite chilling intensity and intimacy.

When we first got to know each other in short trousers, both our fathers were appearing on Broadway; mine was Robert, his was Bert, the Cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz; and I suppose neither of us has ever managed to get over our fascination with faces seen darkly in dressingroom mirrors - though intriguingly only a quarter of these latest Lahr profiles are of people who make a living by appearing in front of audiences, and they are an oddly mixed bunch: Judi Dench, Barry Humphries, Billy Connolly and an American stand-up comedian called Bill Hicks whom I'd never come across and now never will, because Lahr records his slow death as well as his life in awesome detail.

Elsewhere, things are more cheerful.

Like his father, Lahr is an expert at highdefinition performance, and perhaps the only disappointing profile here is one of the Kenneth Tynan who coined that phrase. …

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